Five Things Every Woman Should Know About Ovarian Cancer

If you knew that your car’s make and model tends to develop brake problems after 50,000 miles, you’d probably want to take it in and get them checked, right? Likewise, women of a certain age should be getting checked for ovarian cancer, says Nicholas C. Lambrou, M.D., chief of gynecologic oncology at Miami Cancer Institute.

Ovarian is the fifth leading cause of cancer among women, according to the American Cancer Society; this year, roughly 21,750 women will be diagnosed with it. This cancer develops primarily in older women — women over age 40 are most at risk – and a woman’s odds of getting ovarian cancer during her lifetime is about one in 78.

Dr. Lambrou says there are five things every woman should know about the disease, its symptoms and its treatment.

1.  GeneticScreening is Key

Nicholas C. Lambrou, M.D., chief of gynecologic oncology at Miami Cancer Institute

“There is no Papsmear-like test for ovarian cancer, or an HPV-like vaccine that can prevent it,so genetic screening is very important,” Dr. Lambrou says. “If you have theBRCA 1 gene, for example, you have up to a 90% risk of getting breastcancer and up to a 50% risk of getting ovarian cancer.” With odds like that,it’s understandable why some women who have the gene decide to haveprophylactic surgery.

Also, Jewish women of Ashkenazi ancestryhave a higher rate of carrying mutated BRCA genes, Dr. Lambrou says, which putsthem at increased risk for a multitude of cancers,including ovarian cancer. Recent guidelines allow all womenof this ancestry, including those with no family cancer history, to be testeddue to the higher prevalence of cancer in this group. If your familyhistory points to an increased risk, your doctor can help you decide how tobest manage your situation.  

Additionally, being diagnosed with one cancer could meanyou’re more likely to develop the other, Dr. Lambrou adds. “If you’re a youngwoman of 33 years old and you get a breast cancer diagnosis, then there’s ahigher chance you’re carrying one of these genes and didn’t know it, leavingyou vulnerable to developing ovarian cancer,” he says. “But information ispower and if you know you have the gene, there is something you can do, proactively,to prevent yourself from getting it.”

2.  Know Your Family History

A common misconception about ovarian cancer isthat people often think it can only get passed down from mother to daughter.However, it’s 50/50 and men can pass the gene down to their children, oftenunknowingly. By understanding your complete family history – maternal and paternal,you can potentially avoid these types of cancers through geneticscreening.  

3. Early Screening/Testing is Paramount

Ovarian cancercan be curable but treating it can be a long and sometimes challengingprocess. “As with virtually every other type ofcancer, earlier detection leads to better outcomes,” Dr. Lambrou notes.

African American women carry a higher risk of developinggynecological cancers, he says, and they’re also at greater risk for receivinga poor prognosis due to disparities in access to screening and testing. “Withroutine cancer screenings being put on pause during the height of the COVID-19pandemic, it’s more important than ever to visit your gynecologist for a yearlypelvic exam,” Dr. Lambrou advises. And once you get tested, he says, make sureyou share that information with other members of your family, who may also beat risk.

4. Understanding Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer Can Save YourLife

Ovarian cancer was known for years as a “silent”disease. However, research points to four key symptoms all women should beaware of. They include 1) bloating, 2) pain in pelvis and/or belly, 3) troubleeating or sensation of quickly feeling full, and/or 4) feeling the need to urgentlyurinate and/or urinate more frequently. “If the symptoms are new, occurmore than 12 times a month, and/or don’t dissipate when changing theenvironment through diet or exercise, then you should see your doctor,” Dr.Lambrou says.

5. Management of Ovarian Cancer Has Undergone DramaticChanges

The management of ovarian cancer has undergone dramaticchanges over the last few years, Dr. Lambrou says, and as treatments continueto progress, so does the patient’s outlook. “Surgery by an experienced gynecologiconcologist is still the mainstay of treatment but there is also a new class ofdrugs called PARP inhibitors that have changed the standard of care, improvingprogression-free survival in women.”

In addition, he says randomized control trials havedemonstrated the benefit in some women of incorporating hyperthermicintraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC) in the management of this disease. “Thisinvolves administering warm chemotherapy drugs directly into the abdomen duringsurgery.”

Where you are treated can make a difference, too, Dr.Lambrou says. “Studies show that cancer centers with higher patient volumeshave better outcomes. At Miami Cancer Institute, we treat a large number ofpatients – with ovarian cancer and every other type of cancer – and we differentiateourselves with a thoughtful, multidisciplinary approach tailored to the unique,individual needs of every patient.”

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