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Ovarian cancer: Turning up the volume on a silent killer

Lankenau Medical Center September 8, 2014 General Wellness

Ovarian cancer, which affects roughly 20,000 women per year and is the fifth-leading cause of cancer death among women, has been dubbed ‘the silent killer.’ The disease has few symptoms and, by the time it is detected, has progressed to a more advanced stage, making it more difficult to treat and more fatal than had it been discovered earlier.

“So many cases of ovarian cancer go undetected because the symptoms are so common,” explains David Holtz, MD, gynecological oncologist at Lankenau Medical Center, Main Line Health. “It’s important for women to arm themselves with the knowledge of what symptoms are associated with ovarian cancer so that they can improve their chances of detection.”

Unlike other types of cancer that might have symptoms such as skin changes or fatigue, ovarian cancer’s symptoms can often go unrecognized, especially during the busy day-to-day routines of mothers, wives or working women. In addition, it’s easy to mistake ovarian cancer symptoms as symptoms of another health issue, like digestive or bladder problems.

Symptoms that women should be aware of and recognize as potential signs of ovarian cancer include:

  • Abdominal pressure, fullness, swelling or bloating
  • Pelvic discomfort or pain
  • Indigestion, gas or nausea
  • Changes in bowel or bladder habits
  • Loss of appetite or feeling full more quickly
  • Increased abdominal growth (do your clothes feel tighter around your waist?)

“If you start to notice symptoms that persist, you should follow up with your physician or gynecologist. Most of the time it is not ovarian cancer, but you should follow up with a physician,” says Dr. Holtz.

Every woman is at risk for ovarian cancer but, depending on health history or family health history, some women are more at risk than others. A family history of ovarian cancer or previous breast cancer diagnosis are two factors that increase your risk for the disease, but others include:

  • Increasing age, particularly after menopause
  • Never having been pregnant
  • History of infertility

One of the best ways to decrease your risk for being diagnosed with ovarian cancer is to have genetic tests performed, especially in instances of a family history. Genetic testing can help determine the presence of certain genes in the body that make you predisposed to the disease. Another important part of decreasing your risk is to make your physicians aware of a history of the disease or any changes in your body.

“If a mother, an aunt, a sister, or other first-degree female family member has had ovarian cancer, make sure you make your regular physician and gynecologist aware of that history,” says Dr. Holtz. “This will keep them especially aware of any abnormalities during your visits and more likely to detect something that might have otherwise been overlooked.”

Understanding the symptoms and risk factors associated with ovarian disease can help to turn up the volume on a silent killer. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned in this article or have a family history of ovarian cancer you want to learn more about, make an appointment with a Main Line Health physician using our secure online appointment request form.