Annette Bicher, MD, is board-certified in gynecologic oncology and obstetrics and gynecology. Dr. Bicher is a member of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Felix Rutledge Society of Gynecology/Oncology, Society of Gynecologic Oncologists and the Society of Gynecologic Investigation. She serves as Director of Gynecologic Oncology at Inova Fairfax Hospital.
To detect breast cancer early, we have mammograms. And for cervical cancer, we have Pap tests. Yet for ovarian cancer, we currently don’t have a screening test that can find it early.
But that doesn’t mean we are completely powerless. Know your risk factors, learn the symptoms and see your provider regularly. These three steps can help you lower your risk or detect it early, when treatment is more successful.
Know Your Risk Factors for Ovarian Cancer
There’s no way to know who will get ovarian cancer and who won’t. But certain things, called risk factors, can raise your risk of getting this disease. Ovarian cancer risk factors include:
- Certain gene mutations: Mutations in BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes increase your risk of ovarian cancer. If your parent had a BRCA1 gene mutation, you have a 50 percent chance of having the mutation, too.
- Getting older: 90 percent of ovarian cancers occur over age 40.
- Eastern European or Ashkenazi Jewish background: People with these ethnicities are more likely to get ovarian cancer than other groups.
- Endometriosis: If you have endometriosis (condition where tissue from the uterus grows elsewhere in the body), your risk of ovarian cancer is higher.
- Family history of ovarian cancer: If your mother, sister, aunt or grandmother had ovarian cancer, your risk is higher.
- Lynch syndrome in you or a family member: If you or someone in your family has the gene mutation for Lynch syndrome, you have an increased risk of ovarian cancer.
- Personal history of certain cancers: If you’ve had breast, uterine, or colorectal cancer, your risk of ovarian cancer is higher.
- Pregnancy later in life or no full-term pregnancies: Women who had their first pregnancy after age 35 or never had a full-term pregnancy have a higher risk.
- Taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT) after menopause: Postmenopausal women who take estrogen alone or with progesterone have a higher risk of ovarian cancer.
Ovarian cancers caused by gene mutations get a lot of attention. But these cases account for only 10 to 15 percent of ovarian cancers. Being aware of other ovarian cancer risk factors is critical so you can take an active role in your health.
Having one or more risk factors doesn’t mean you will get ovarian cancer. But if you have any of these risk factors, talk with your provider. Together, you can create a preventive care plan that fits your unique needs.
Watch for Sneaky Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer
Ovarian cancer is called a “silent disease” because it often causes mild or vague symptoms in the early stages. These symptoms resemble those of more common conditions, such as digestive problems or urinary tract infections. As it progresses, ovarian cancer symptoms become more obvious. That’s why many women get an ovarian cancer diagnosis when the cancer is in the later stages.
Finding ovarian cancer early increases the chances of successful treatment. Learn the early signs of ovarian cancer, which include:
- Abdominal or back pain
- Changes to urination, such as feeling the need to urinate more often or feeling an urgent need to urinate
- Changes to your normal vaginal discharge
- Feeling full quickly or loss of appetite
- Pain or pressure in the pelvis
- Vaginal bleeding that’s not normal for you, such as bleeding between periods or bleeding that’s heavier than normal
- Vaginal bleeding when you are past menopause
If you notice any of these symptoms, keep track of them. Write them down or record them on your smartphone. If they continue for two weeks or longer, contact your doctor.
See Your Gynecologist, Even After Menopause
Many women believe that once they’re past menopause, they don’t need gynecology care anymore. But women of all ages should continue to receive regular pelvic exams. Pelvic exams can spot problems like cysts, fibroids and other gynecological cancers. And women over age 60 have the highest risk of ovarian cancer, so regular communication with your provider is important.
A pelvic exam alone can’t spot or diagnose ovarian cancer, but it’s a chance to connect with your provider. Tell them about any changes you notice in your digestion or any unusual bloating, pain or pressure.
Listen to your body and advocate for yourself. If something doesn’t feel right, even if it’s minor, don’t be afraid to tell your provider.
Leading Edge Ovarian Cancer Care at Inova
If you are dealing with an ovarian cancer diagnosis, you want the best possible care.
Inova cares for the largest volume of ovarian cancer patients in the region, and for good reason: We provide compassionate, complete ovarian cancer care, including the latest advances in chemotherapy, immunotherapy and surgery.
Inova is also leading the way with clinical trials for ovarian cancer treatment. As a liaison with the National Cancer Institute, we have access to promising new treatments before they’re widely available. Our experts are leaders in their field, providing exceptional care for every person, every step of the way.
Learn more about clinical trials at Inova Schar Cancer Institute.