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Ovarian cancer
Early detection is your best defense

» Detection difficulties

» Protecting yourself

Your ovarian cancer risk

According to the American Cancer Society, your risk for ovarian cancer increases if you are over age 50, are obese, have never given birth or have a personal or family history of breast or colon cancer. Your risk rises if you have a close blood relative (mother, sister, daughter) who had ovarian cancer. Two or more close blood relatives with the disease increase your risk even more, as does a family history of cancer caused by a mutation of the breast cancer gene BRCA1 or BRCA2. Some studies suggest that lengthy use of estrogen therapy, especially after menopause, and long-term use of talcum powder in the genital area may also raise your risk.

This year, more than 22,000 American women—most over age 50—will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer and about 15,000 will die from the disease, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). Women diagnosed when the cancer is contained within the ovary face a five-year survival rate of 90 percent to 95 percent. Sadly, only 19 percent of all ovarian cancers are found before they have spread—largely because doctors haven’t found reliable ways to detect the disease early.

Detection difficulties

Women with ovarian cancer don’t always have symptoms or their symptoms may be mild. They may experience pain or swelling in the lower abdomen, appetite loss, indigestion, nausea or weight loss—symptoms that may be mistaken for those of other conditions.

Often, these symptoms arise in the months before ovarian cancer is found. But even when these symptoms are present, many women fail to get the tests that have the best chances of detecting ovarian cancer, according to University of California at Davis School of Medicine doctors who studied nearly 2,000 women whose cancer had spread outside the ovary. But are even these more reliable tests good enough? Currently, researchers are studying two tests considered most accurate at detecting ovarian cancer:

  • CA-125 blood test—This blood test checks for levels of a protein in your body called CA-125, which can indicate ovarian cancer.
  • Transvaginal ultrasound—This imaging test uses sound waves to take pictures of your ovaries.

Used alone or in combination, these screening methods can detect ovarian cancer but can also produce false-positive test results, causing needless surgery, according to preliminary results of the Prostate, Lung, Colorectal and Ovarian (PLCO) Cancer Screening Trial. Funded by the National Cancer Institute, this large study will continue for at least 10 more follow-up years.

Protecting yourself

To lower your chance of dying from ovarian cancer, know your risk factors. The ACS says women who are at high risk for ovarian cancer and have symptoms of the disease may be candidates for a pelvic ultrasound, a manual pelvic exam and the CA-125 blood test. However, the ACS doesn’t recommend pelvic imaging or the CA-125 test for screening low-risk women or women without symptoms.


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