World Ovarian Cancer Day is observed every year on May 8 to raise awareness about the most deadly gynecological cancer that causes more than 15,000 deaths each year in the United States.

The theme for this year's celebration "No Woman Left Behind" emphasizes the need for screening, recognizing the symptoms and early diagnosis in every woman, especially those residing in middle and underdeveloped countries.

Ovarian cancers occur when the cells in the ovaries or fallopian tubes grow abnormally, and multiply out of control. Although scientists have not identified the exact cause of ovarian cancers, certain factors such as age, obesity, and conditions such as endometriosis increase the risk of the disease.

Risk factors

  • Age: Women over the age of 50 have a higher risk
  • Obesity: Women who are obese have 2 % more risk for ovarian cancer
  • Endometriosis: Since endometriosis causes cell changes throughout the reproductive organs, the risk of ovarian cancer is slightly high.
  • Use of talcum powder: Studies have shown that using talcum powder in the genital area increases ovarian cancer risk by about 0.5%.
  • Hormone replacement therapy (HRT): According to studies, HRT increases ovarian cancer diagnosis by 1 additional case per 1,000 HRT users.
  • Smoking: Smokers are at a 3% higher risk of ovarian cancer.
  • Diabetes: Women with diabetes have 20%-25% of developing ovarian cancer.
  • Women who have not become pregnant are at an increased risk of ovarian cancer.
  • Early menarche and late menopause also increase the risk of ovarian cancer.

Why is screening important?

Ovarian cancers can quickly spread from early stages to advance within a year. Early detection of ovarian cancers becomes difficult, as most often there may not be any symptoms or the symptoms might mimic other diseases.

In many cases, when the symptoms appear, the cancer would have advanced to stages when it is hard to treat. It is estimated that only 20% of women receive an early ovarian cancer diagnosis when the disease is in stage I or II.

Common symptoms

  • Unexplained abdominal bloating or swelling
  • Feeling full quickly when eating
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Difficulty eating or lack of appetite
  • Pelvic pain and discomfort
  • Fatigue
  • Frequent need to urinate
  • Changes in bowel habits--diarrhea or constipation
  • Abnormal vaginal discharge, bleeding--outside of typical menstrual cycle or menopause

However, many other conditions such as ovarian cysts, irritable bowel syndrome, uterine fibroids, endometriosis, and pelvic inflammatory disease also can show similar symptoms.

Since the symptoms are confusing, health experts advise people who experience unexplained abdominal symptoms for more than 2 weeks to see a health provider and get themselves checked.

Common misconceptions

Myth 1: Ovarian cancer does not affect young women

Although 80% of ovarian cases are among women over the age of 50, young women can also be affected by the disease.

Myth 2: Pelvic exam can detect ovarian cancer

Routine tests like pelvic exams and pap smear cannot detect ovarian cancer although pap smear helps in screening cervical cancer. CT scans, PET scans, MRIs, and blood tests to screen for ovarian cancer.

Myth 3: Hysterectomy prevents ovarian cancer

Removing fallopian tubes and ovaries during hysterectomy reduces the risk of ovarian cancer by 95%, but there is still a 5% chance of developing cancer cells.

Common early symptoms of ovarian cancer, such as abdominal swelling or bloating, can be easy to overlook. Photo Courtesy of Pixabay