While healthy lifestyles go a long way towards preventing the more serious health conditions, like heart disease or diabetes, they’re never a guarantee. Certain forms of cancer, for example, seem to have no rhyme or reason for where they strike. That means we have to focus on other ways to detect cancer so we can catch it early and stop it in its tracks. Ovarian cancer is an example of this.
Knowing your risk factor, paying attention to your body and respecting the annual well-woman visit are your greatest weapons when it comes to preventing ovarian cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, while ovarian cancer only accounts for about 3% of cancer in women, it is the most deadly form of cancer that affects the reproductive system.
Please Note: Ovarian cancer is completely different from cervical cancer. While we can easily screen you for cervical cancer via a pap smear, there is no test that can screen for ovarian cancer. Only symptoms and a very specific blood test (that isn’t always accurate) lead to more invasive diagnostic procedures that locate the ovarian tumors – most often when it’s already in Stage Three. Therefore it’s so important to know your risk factors and pay attention to your body.
Know Your Ovarian Cancer Risk
While it has been historically dubbed, “the silent cancer,” patient testimonials show us repeatedly that ovarian cancer isn’t as silent as we once thought. It often presents plenty of clues.
In the past, perhaps it was the women who were silent, afraid to share the symptoms and side-effects they were experiencing in parts of their body that were considered private, secret and unmentionable in public. Fortunately, the combination of cancer awareness and a more open and proactive view of female reproductive anatomy, is allowing this deadly cancer to speak up.
Understand the different risk factors
There are several things that put you in a higher risk bracket for developing ovarian cancer:
- Family history. Women with a family history of ovarian cancer have a higher chance of getting it because it can be an inherited gene trait. Unfortunately, in some families, this cancer went unmentioned or remained mysterious even for the women in older generations who had it. Look into the reasons why grandmothers, great aunts, great grandmothers, etc. passed away. If there are any that seem to be mysterious, take note and be more vigilant.
- A gene mutation. There are gene mutations, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations, responsible for at least 10% of all ovarian cancer cases. Then there are other gene mutations that cause syndromes linked to ovarian and other types of cancer. If your family has a history of cancer – even those other than ovarian – speak with your doctor about your own, potential genetic predisposition so you can choose a preventative care plan that makes sense. Genetic screening isn’t necessary but if your family has a strong history of cancer, it might not be a bad idea.
- No pregnancy or late, first pregnancy. Women reduce their chances of getting ovarian cancer by having at least one full-term pregnancy before age 26, by having more than one pregnancy, and by breastfeeding. If you haven’t had children, only had one, had your first baby later in life and/or didn’t breastfeed, you’re risk bracket is higher.
- Not taking birth control. Interestingly, women who take hormonal birth control for at least six-months during their life have a lower ovarian cancer risk. The longer they took birth control, the lower their risk seems to be, so taking birth control pills may help to reduce your ovarian cancer risk.
- Hormone therapy. If you’ve opted to use hormone therapy during and after menopause, you may have an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. The key is to use hormone therapy only as needed, and under supervision of a healthcare provider who tests hormone levels and tailors healthcare visits and screenings to suit any potential risks.
Additionally, being obese and/or having breast cancer also increase your chances of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
Know your body and the symptoms of ovarian cancer
Of course, most women who have all-of-the-above risk factors will still never be diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and women who have none of the prevalent risk factors may still get it. So, knowing your body -and paying attention to its signs and symptoms – is critical in catching ovarian cancer as early as possible.
Here are the most common signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer:
- Belly bloating or swelling
- A feeling of fullness or being full when you haven’t eaten much
- Lower belly pain
- Discomfort or pain during sex
- Lower back pain
- Unexplained weight loss
- Changes in your menstrual cycle
- Changes in bowel or urinary habits, including constipation or feeling like you have to urinate frequently
As you can probably tell, these symptoms can be quite vague and may lead to an incorrect diagnosis at first. However, if they last for two-weeks or longer, or continue to present, you should take them back to your doctor for further consultation.
For example, many women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) at first – but persistent symptoms lead to further examination. It’s also worth noting that ovarian cancer is more common in women 63-years and older (although younger women should never write-off any unusual symptoms) although IBS is rarely diagnosed in women over the age of 50. Be your own advocate whenever a diagnosis doesn’t resonate with you.
Listen to your body and honor it, even if a doctor is telling you your fine. Nobody knows your body better than you, and that is worthy of a second opinion. Paying attention to what your body says – and following through – may be exactly the very thing that saves your life should you be diagnosed with this or any other form of cancer.
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