BY DR. SHANA WINGO, MD
Ovarian cancer has long been considered a “silent” cancer because it can progress without noticeable symptoms. By the time it was first diagnosed, ovarian cancer was so advanced that treatment was challenging and survival rates were less than optimal. However, recent medical advancements are helping to write a new story about ovarian cancer.
Ovarian cancer strikes 22,000 U.S. women annually, and the most common symptoms include bloating, pain in the stomach or pelvic areas, difficulty eating, feeling full quickly, trouble urinating, or feeling urgency to use the bathroom. Changes in menstrual cycles, unexplained weight gain, back pain or fatigue can also be signs. Because some of these symptoms are vague or similar to those associated with other problems, such as digestive issues, ovarian cancer may not be immediately suspected.
Physicians and researchers encourage patients to focus less on the symptoms themselves, and more on whether symptoms are new. A woman reporting a new symptom to her doctor, especially one occurring frequently and continuing for at least a week, has a better chance for early diagnosis if ovarian cancer is the culprit. Ovarian cancer may not be silent after all—its signs are simply ignored or misinterpreted too often.
Research is also revealing new ways to prevent ovarian cancer, particularly for those with family history or women who carry the gene mutation that causes it. Already, cancer experts have discovered better methods to detect high-risk genes and evaluate a woman’s overall risk for ovarian cancer. Now, studies are suggesting that some ovarian cancers may actually begin in the fallopian tubes. For high-risk women who consider having their ovaries removed to prevent cancer, this is groundbreaking news. Rather than having their ovaries removed and losing all their estrogen-producing benefits, , they can instead have their fallopian tubes removed as a protective measure.
Ongoing clinical trials are testing new chemotherapy drugs, targeted therapy directed specifically at finding and eliminating diseased cells, and immunotherapy as a way to leverage the immune system against cancer cells. Technology to support minimally invasive surgery is also becoming more widely available. This type of surgery may have a lower risk of infection, which helps patients with compromised immunity due to their illness. It typically offers faster recovery, shorter hospital stays, and less bleeding, allowing patients with other planned treatments such as radiation or chemotherapy to begin them sooner.
Unlike cervical cancer, which uses the Pap smear as a screening tool for all women, ovarian cancer does not have a universal screening tool. For women with a strong family history or symptoms of ovarian cancer, ultrasound or blood tests may be used for screening. However, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends against screening low-risk women because the available tests have not demonstrated a reduction in ovarian cancer deaths and may lead to unnecessary surgery. That said, studies are continuing to emphasize the development of useful and accurate tools to screen for and identify ovarian cancer in its earliest stages, which promises to impact future outcomes.
While research is revealing important clues about the behavior, diagnosis and treatment of ovarian cancer, it remains a disease without a cure. For now, a woman’s best defense against ovarian cancer is to remain aware of her body, report any new symptoms to her physician, and schedule an annual pelvic exam.
Dr. Shana Wingo, MD, is one of fewer than 1,500 gynecologic oncologists in the U.S. specializing in the treatment of ovarian, cervical, endometrial, uterine and vulvar cancer
Free Lecture about Ovarian Cancer
Dr. Shana Wingo, MD, a board-certified gynecological oncologist, will present information about symptoms, diagnosis and treatment options of ovarian cancer. Her lecture will include information about the use of robotic-assisted surgery to make procedures minimally invasive.