Any type of cancer diagnosis can be startling and overwhelming; however, an ovarian cancer diagnosis can be even more upsetting to women and their loved ones because of its high mortality rate. Ovarian cancer, often referred to as the “silent killer”, is known as the 5th most common and deadliest cancer. Similar to all other types of cancers, the earlier a diagnosis is made, the better the outcome. Unfortunately, over 70% of women with ovarian cancer are not diagnosed until stage III or stage IV, during which time the cancer can be rather difficult to cure.
Ovarian cancer is referred to as the “silent killer” because it does not present any obvious symptoms until the cancer has reached an advanced stage – stage III or stage IV.
Nowadays, there are several stories available on the internet about women who discovered they had ovarian cancer because they experienced an abnormal or sneaky symptom that arose their concern. These stories are vital to spreading awareness on the topic of ovarian cancer and its lesser-known symptoms. Even today, with advancing tools and methods at patients’ and doctors’ disposal, an ovarian cancer diagnosis can be difficult to detect.
“Many people end up with a lot of guilt thinking they didn't pay enough attention to their bodies. That's unfair, because they're often very vague symptoms” said Roisin O’Cearbhaill, medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. For this reason, Dr. O’Cearbhaill stresses 4 of the most important things that young individuals should be aware of when it comes to ovarian cancer.
Ovarian cancer is not common, although it can develop, in young women
Ovarian cancer is typically diagnosed in women ages 63 and older; however, there are a few rare cases where ovarian cancer can develop in young women in their 20s and even younger. Although it is quite uncommon, you are more likely to develop ovarian cancer at a young age if you have two or more close relatives who have had ovarian cancer or breast cancer. Dr. O’Cearbhaill suggests undergoing regular pelvic examinations, being aware of any abnormal symptoms, and knowing your family history.
Symptoms of ovarian cancer are persistent
Symptoms of ovarian cancer, such as feeling full after eating, feeling bloated, having abdominal pain, and experiencing changes in urination, are quite similar to ones you may have experienced before - perhaps after a meal or during an irregular menstrual cycle. However, symptoms of ovarian cancer are constant. “There used to be a myth that ovarian cancer didn’t have symptoms and we really keen to refute that to say that there are 4 really acute symptoms: persistent bloating, persistent tummy pain, need to pee more frequently and feeling full after you have eaten a meal, even if it’s just a small amount of food. The important thing is that those are persistent and that they are unusual for you. Sadly, sometimes ovarian cancer gets misdiagnosed for irritable bowel syndrome but it is unusual that that may start at that particular time in a women’s life,” said Katherine Taylor, Chief Executive of Ovarian Cancer Action. Still, with younger individuals, such symptoms could be a sign of gastroenteritis, endometriosis, or pregnancy - thus making it difficult to recognize whether or not the symptoms are normal or related to something more severe such as ovarian cancer.
Genetics play a significant role in ovarian cancer
According to several studies, around 25% of ovarian cancers are hereditary. One particular study, conducted back in 2015, found that 15% of individuals with ovarian cancer have a genetic predisposition to the disease. “Not everyone with the [BRCA] gene will get it, but a high proportion will,” said Dr. O'Cearbhaill. If you have a family history of ovarian cancer (first or second-degree family member who has had ovarian cancer) or you have inherited the BRCA gene, you may be at high-risk of ovarian cancer. For this reason, it is important that you pay attention to your symptoms, conduct regular visits with your gynecologist, and follow up. If, however, you do not have a family history of ovarian cancer, you should still undergo regular pelvic examinations to help uncover any abnormalities. In any case, if you begin to experience any changes in your mood or abnormal symptoms, you should speak with a specialist right away.
Ovarian cancer is treatable
If ovarian cancer is found at an early stage, the average survival rate of 5 years following diagnosis is around 94%. Unfortunately, only around 20% of ovarian cancers are diagnosed at an early stage. Still, nowadays there are several new types of treatments available for ovarian cancer, according to Dr. O’Cearbhaill. While the most common treatment for ovarian cancer is surgery, this mainly depends on how far the cancer has spread to other areas within the body. Some patients may even require undergoing radiation, hormone therapy, chemotherapy, or a hysterectomy.
If you have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, you could be experiencing emotional difficulties that come with suffering from such a disease. Of course, it affects your life and you may feel upset with yourself. You may also be worried about your family and how your diagnosis will affect your relationship with them, your partner, your friends, and your career.
“There’s really no part of a women’s life that would remain untouched by a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. It’s very important to have and seek support and also to seek information. I would also say that ovarian cancer in interesting because it can be inherited and women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer should be offered a BRCA gene test as consequence. There are two reasons for that subsequent test, one is that it can make a difference to that individual’s treatment path but it’s also really important information for their families as well. I think there is a psychological issue bound up with that, women can feel incredibly guilty that they have this gene that they may have passed on to their children. Of course, it’s not their fault it’s something that is innate, we all have a genetic inheritance, there are lots of different diseases that can have a genetic footprint and nobody should feel they are at fault or to blame but rather that if you have knowledge there are choices you can make,” said Katherine Taylor.
The most important thing that you can do when it comes to detecting any type of cancer at an early stage is to stay on top of your health. If you have a genetic predisposition to ovarian cancer, learn about the disease. If you are already coping with the disease, make sure that you have support from your loved ones. “It’s very important I think to have some genetic counseling and support as well because if you have the disease as a result of a genetic mutation, the support is available there, make sure that women get that, and that also that support and counseling is cascaded out into families as well so that families can take action to reduce their own risk,” stated Katherine Taylor.