When we think about women and cancer, breast cancer is usually the first thing that comes to mind. And rightly so, as breast cancer affects 1 out of every 8 U.S. women. But ovarian cancer is not too far behind. The seventh most common cancer among U.S. women, ovarian cancer is also the fifth leading cause of female cancer deaths. We may recognize the pink ribbon as the symbol of breast cancer awareness and perhaps participate in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure or other charitable efforts to defeat breast cancer, but it’s important to remember the risks to our whole bodies.
Although more than 25,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year, Idaho has a relatively low rate of ovarian cancer. With the latest statistics available from 2008, Idaho fell into the second lowest group of states, with a rate of 11.0 to 11.8 women per 100,000 Idaho women getting ovarian cancer. The highest group of states, including our neighbors in Oregon, Montana, and Washington, has a rate of 12.7 to 15.4 women per 100,000 with ovarian cancer. However, Idaho actually falls into the highest group of states for ovarian cancer death rate, with 8.6 to 9.6 women per 100,000. You can see a state by state diagram for ovarian cancer rates by clicking on this link.
The higher rate of death from ovarian cancer is disturbing, but it’s likely that the number is elevated because many women do not notice symptoms of ovarian cancer until it has spread. Sadly, less than a third of ovarian cancer cases are recognized while they are still contained in the ovaries, and only about 20 percent of ovarian cancer cases are diagnosed while they are still curable. That means 80 percent of women with ovarian cancer didn’t find out until it was too late. It’s no wonder that ovarian cancer is the deadliest form of cancer of the female reproductive system.
Symptoms of ovarian cancer include swelling or bloating of the abdomen, pain or pressure in the abdomen, back, legs, or pelvis, constant fatigue, nausea, gas, indigestion, diarrhea, or constipation. Some women may also experience the frequent urge for urination, shortness of breath, and unusual vaginal bleeding, such as heavy periods, or bleeding after menopause. Many of these symptoms can be vague or mistaken for something else, so it’s important to talk to your doctor right away, especially if you have any risk factors.
Those risk factors include a family history of cancer, not just limited to ovarian cancer. Women whose relatives have had breast, uterine, colon, or rectal cancer also have an increased risk of ovarian cancer. Likewise, if you have had any of those cancers, you have an increased risk of ovarian cancer. Age can also be a factor, as your risk increases as you get older, especially if you’ve never been pregnant. Most ovarian cancers are diagnosed in women over the age of 55. Finally, some evidence suggests that women who take estrogen alone (rather than a combination of estrogen and progesterone) as menopausal hormone therapy for a period of 10 years or more will have an elevated risk of ovarian cancer. Talk with your doctor if you have any of these risk factors, especially family history.
Ladies, please don’t assume that because you get regular checkups, you’re in the clear. A Pap smear does not detect ovarian cancer. Remember, those tests check the cervix, not the ovaries. There is currently no reliable tool for detecting ovarian cancer in a routine screening, before outward signs, such as a detectable mass, are evident. That’s why it’s so important to listen to your body and pay careful attention to any changes. If you have unusual bloating, pain in your abdomen or pelvis, trouble eating, feel full quickly, or an unusual urgency to urinate, see your doctor right away. The good news is that when ovarian cancer is detected in the early stages, the likelihood of surviving five years after diagnosis is a very encouraging 90 percent. Compare that to the later diagnosis survival rate of only 30 percent and it’s easy to see why it’s so important to listen to your body.
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Were you aware of the prevalence of ovarian cancer?
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