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Break the Silence

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Ovarian cancer awareness lacking among women

nocc.jpgA new study by the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition (NOCC) has found that the public’s knowledge of ovarian cancer is far less than doctors ever imagined. According to the study, only 15 percent of women are familiar with the symptoms of ovarian cancer or know its risk factors, and only 18 percent of women have discussed it with their doctors. These statistics are troubling because ovarian cancer is the most deadly form of reproductive cancer. This year alone more than 20,000 women will be diagnosed with it and about 15,000 will die.

The importance of early detection is tremendous. If ovarian cancer is caught early enough, the fiveyear survival rate is about 90 percent. However, 75 percent of women are diagnosed in the later stages, making for an extremely poor prognosis.

Breaking the Silence
“Ovarian cancer is taking far too many lives,” says Jane Langridge, chief executive officer of the NOCC, “and [it] deserves the national public attention and discourse that other deadly cancers such as breast and prostate cancer have achieved.” In response to the lack of knowledge and the staggering statistics, NOCC is initiating a new program, called Break the Silence, to educate women about the symptoms and facilitate early detection.

“Our goal is to jumpstart public dialogue and awareness to ultimately improve survival rates,” says Langridge.

Get Checked
The symptoms of ovarian cancer are hard to pinpoint and narrow down because they mimic those of several gastrointestinal and digestive disorders. Some common symptoms are swelling of the abdomen, severe bloating, pressure and pain in the stomach, upset stomach and frequent urination.

The reality is that most women get checked only after they have begun to develop symptoms.

“When women have developed symptoms, their cancer has typically already spread,” says Dr. Lisa Bazzett of Ochsner Health System. “Any woman who has ovaries should have a pelvic exam on a yearly basis by her gynecologist or primary care doctor where the pelvic organs are actually examined manually.”
The exam is not exactly specialized for finding ovarian cancer, but it does help. “This is not a very sensitive exam for ovarian cancer,” Bazzett says, “but unfortunately there are none, but it does certainly pick up some abnormalities that end up being cancer.”

Breast Cancer and Heredity
According to Bazzett, the small percentage of women who get hereditary ovarian cancer have family members with ovarian cancer or early-onset breast cancer. “If a woman has [early-onset breast cancer] or her family members do, she may be at significantly increased risk of developing ovarian cancer,” says Bazzett.

However, if heredity isn’t a factor, there is still a chance of developing ovarian cancer. “[Only] about 8 percent to 10 percent of all ovarian cancers are due to heredity, the rest just happen randomly,” Bazzett says. The lesson here is simple: See your ob/gyn.

Ovarian Cancer Statistics
Direct from the NOCC, the following are the key findings discussed in the survey:

  • 54 percent of women who have not spoken to their doctors about ovarian cancer do not think it’s an issue because the doctor never initiated the discussion.
  • 59 percent of women have talked to their doctor about breast cancer, compared to only 18 percent of women who have talked to their doctor about ovarian cancer.
  • 40 percent of women are not sure of the risk factors, and many incorrectly identified the use of high-dose estrogen without progesterone (35 percent) and extended use of the birth control pill (27 percent) as risk factors.
  • Women who have used oral contraceptives for three or more years have about a 30 percent to 50 percent lower risk of developing ovarian cancer.
  • 67 percent of women incorrectly believe that a yearly Pap test is effective in the diagnosis of ovarian cancer.

Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer
Ovarian cancer is difficult to detect, especially, in the early stages. This is partly due to the fact that these two small, almond-shaped organs are deep within the abdominal cavity, one on each side of the uterus. These are some of the potential signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer:

  • Pelvic or abdominal pain or discomfort
  • Vague but persistent gastrointestinal upsets such as gas, nausea, and indigestion
  • Frequency and/or urgency of urination in the absence of an infection
  • Unexplained weight gain or weight loss
  • Pelvic and/or abdominal swelling, bloating and/or feeling of fullness
  • Ongoing unusual fatigue
  • Unexplained changes in bowel habits

If symptoms persist for more than two weeks, consult your physician. Women experiencing at least two to three symptoms at the same time, and for two weeks or more, should visit a gynecologist and ask for a rectovaginal exam, transvaginal ultrasound and CA-125 blood test.