Ovarian Cancer: The deadliest form of Gynecologic Cancers

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By: Taalibah Ahmed, MD

For many women ovarian cancer may not appear to be a focus at their annual well-woman exam, but it is a concern for the gynecologist. Ovarian cancer is the deadliest gynecologic cancer, and takes the lives of more than 15,000 women each year in the United States.

Although it is the 11th most common cancer in women, it is the fifth leading cause of cancer related deaths in women. The survival rates are lower for ovarian cancer than any other cancer that affects women.

Ovarian cancer begins in the ovaries. Women have two ovaries, one on each side of the uterus next to the fallopian tubes. Healthy cells in the ovary help to release an egg every month and make hormones that help the breasts grow, the body to shape, and to regulate menstruations. When menopause occurs, the ovaries stop releasing eggs and stop producing certain hormones. Ovarian cancer begins when the healthy cells in the ovaries change and grow uncontrollably and form a tumor.

Early stage ovarian cancer rarely causes symptoms. Because of this, ovarian cancer often goes undetected until it has spread. At this late stage, symptoms may occur but it is harder to treat and is often fatal. The symptoms are usually nonspecific and may be attributed to other diseases that are not cancer. These symptoms include abdominal bloating or swelling, quickly feeling full after eating, weight loss, and discomfort in the pelvis area, constipation, and frequent urination.

The cause of ovarian cancer is not clear. Ovarian cancer is most common in women ages 50 to 60 years but it may occur at any age. Women with a family history of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, including male breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, colon cancer, or uterine cancer are at increased risk. Others factors that increase risk include infertility, endometriosis, first period at an early age, and late onset of menopause and hormone therapy.

There are also some protective factors that decrease a woman’s risk for ovarian cancer.  This includes the use of oral contraceptive pills, pregnancy, tubal ligation, hysterectomy and breastfeeding, and prophylactic removal of the two fallopian tubes and ovaries in women with a family history.

There is not a reliable screening tool to help detect early stage ovarian cancer. American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the United States Preventive Services Task Force do not recommend routine screening for ovarian cancer.

To decrease impact of the disease, the focus is on primary prevention and screening particularly in the high-risk population. ACOG and the Society of Gynecologic Oncology recommend all women get an annual well-woman exam with a pelvic exam.  This is an annual exam by a physician, and it is an appropriate time to discuss risk factors and prevention strategies, and to gain awareness regarding the symptoms of ovarian cancer.

Jackson Medical Group’s Women’s Center at Jackson South Medical Center is committed to the comprehensive care of the female patient. Women with risk factors for ovarian cancer or those who have symptoms should make an appointment with a gynecologist. Having risk factors or symptoms does not mean cancer is present, but a medical evaluation may help detect cancer at the early stage.

To make an appointment with an OB/GYN, go to www.jacksonhealth.org or call 305-585-4DOC.

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