Ovarian cancer is not as common as other cancers that primarily affect women, like breast and cervical cancers, but it is the most deadly.
That's because ovarian cancer isn't usually detected until it's reached an advanced stage, as its symptoms (nausea, abdominal pain and swelling) are very similar to symptoms of other conditions.
About 21,000 patients will receive an ovarian cancer diagnosis this year, according to the American Cancer Society. And every year, about 13,000 will die from it. As September is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, it's a good time to know the factors that put you at risk.
Dr. Rebeca Martinez is vice-chair of education for obstetrics and gynecology at the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine. She said there is one thing that women can do to catch ovarian cancer early.
"The best thing you can do is know your family history," Martinez said. "Ovarian cancer is very familial — it tends to run in families."
Suppose a member of a patient's family has been previously diagnosed with ovarian or breast cancer. In that case, Martinez recommends that the patient get tested for BRCA gene mutations, which are associated with both cancers. In addition, those of Ashkenazi Jewish descent also have a disproportionate rate of ovarian cancer and should consider testing.
Another factor to consider is whether the patient has ever been pregnant.
"Ovarian cancer is associated with continuous ovulation. So if you've never had children or you had children at a later age, you're at greater risk," Martinez said.
Hormonal birth control disrupts ovulation; taking it for at least two years can decrease the risk of ovarian cancer. For patients who choose to get a tubal ligation (or "getting your tubes tied"), removing the fallopian tubes can also work as a preventative measure against ovarian cancer.
Other factors that increase the risk for ovarian cancer are experiencing recurrent ovarian cysts or abnormal periods. But those risks are not associated as strongly with cancer as a patient's family history and pregnancy history, Martinez cautioned.
If a patient who is high risk believes she may have symptoms of ovarian cancer, Martinez said to make an appointment for a pelvic ultrasound.
Symptoms include abdominal pain, nausea and swelling ("feeling like your pants are too tight").
Women diagnosed with ovarian cancer will typically need a hysterectomy and chemotherapy. And although the survival rate is low, Martinez said that the success rate for chemotherapy has improved in recent years.
"Chemotherapy has gotten much better," she said. "The lifespan with ovarian cancer has gotten much better."