As women, we’re used to taking charge when life throws messes our way. Whether it’s work, family or friends, we negotiate, console, fight and do our best to work it out for the best.
Another thing we’re used to? Bloating. Thanks to our menstrual cycles, many of us expect to have some type of stomach discomfort at least once a month.
This can make it difficult when it comes to raising awareness of the symptoms of ovarian cancer, according to Dr. Sharad Ghamande, director of gynecologic oncology at the Georgia Cancer Center at Augusta University. Diagnosed most often in women in their 50s and 60s, the cancer’s symptoms typically include:
- Bloating and abdominal distension
- The feeling of being full after eating very little
- Change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea or constipation
- Weight gain
“All of us could have these symptoms at any given time,” Ghamande said. “But the key is persistence. If you have this combination of symptoms and it doesn’t go away for a week or so—and you are in your 50s or 60s—then it’s important to schedule a visit with your OBGYN.”
Who’s your family?
While it’s very important for women to be aware of these symptoms, ovarian cancer sadly often does not exhibit symptoms until it’s already in an advanced stage. Seventy-five percent of all patients diagnosed with ovarian cancer will present with advanced stage disease, making a long-term cure more difficult.
While research is ongoing, currently there is no simple test to gauge a patient’s risk for ovarian cancer. For about 90 percent of the roughly 26,000 women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer every year, their cancer cannot be attributed to any specific cause. But for the remaining 10 percent, family history is a very strong factor.
“This is when ovarian cancer is not only predictable, it is possibly preventable,” Ghamande said.
In other words, if you have a cluster of close relatives diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer—such as your mother, aunt, grandmother, sister or a first cousin—then you may have a significantly higher risk of developing ovarian and breast cancer. Sometimes even one young close relative with breast or ovarian cancer diagnosed in her 30s and 40s can be a red flag for a genetic predisposition for these cancers. Here, a simple blood test can detect a genetic mutation in the well-known BRCA 1 and 2 genes or the less common additional newer genes to see if you are predisposed to developing ovarian or breast cancer.
“This knowledge can empower patients to plan their reproductive lives, take preventive measures and avoid being stricken with deadly disease,” Ghamande said.
In addition, women should also be aware that infertility unfortunately may also be a risk factor. However, long-term use of birth control—since these medications suppress ovulation—actually decreases risk of ovarian cancer.
Women may have also heard about the CA 125 test, a blood test that checks for elevated levels of this protein, which can be present in patients with ovarian cancer.
“It’s an amazing test for women who have had cancer to monitor response to therapy and can detect early relapse or recurrence,” Ghamande said. “It can also confirm the presence of advanced cancer.”
However, the screening test is not as sensitive for women who have new early-stage ovarian cancer, since 50 percent of these patients will show normal levels of CA 125.
Taking back control
So with these kinds of statistics, how can women feel control of their own health when it comes to ovarian cancer? It all comes back to awareness.
“Know the symptoms, watch your body and be aware of your family history,” Ghamande said. “And if you have persistent symptoms that aren’t associated with a menstrual cycle or other known causes, don’t ignore them. Talk to your OBGYN right away.”
Need someone to talk to?
To find an OBGYN or schedule an appointment at Augusta University Women’s Health, visit augustahealth.org/women, or call 706-721-4959.