September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness month and it serves as a great reminder to schedule an annual gynecology appointment, if you haven’t done so already.
While it’s true that any cell in any part of your body can become cancerous, ovarian cancer is one of the more prevalent and deadliest of cancers in women. In fact, a woman’s risk for getting ovarian cancer in her lifetime is 1 in 75. While this is a very real number, there are risk factors that women should know, as well as ways to help prevent ovarian cancer or at least detect signs of it early.
What is Ovarian Cancer
Ovaries are reproductive glands that are found only in female bodies. The ovaries are responsible for producing eggs for reproduction. Each menstrual cycle, healthy ovaries will take turns (one ovary one cycle, and another ovary the next) sending eggs from the ovaries through to the fallopian tubes and into the uterus. Once there, if fertilization happens, that egg develops into a fetus.
The ovaries are made up of three types of cells, that can each develop into a different type of tumor:
Epithelial Tumor: This type of tumor starts from the cells that cover the outer surface of the ovary. Most ovarian tumors are this type.
Germ Cell Tumor: This type of tumor starts from the cells that produce the eggs
Stromal Tumor: This type of tumor starts in the tissue cells that hold the ovary together. These tissue cells are responsible for estrogen and progesterone production.
Sometimes, a tumor can form that is entirely benign (or non-cancerous).
Ovarian cancer, just like any other type of cancer, is when abnormal cells form in the body at a more rapid rate. Research suggests that ovarian cancer doesn’t always start in the ovaries. Instead, studies show that abnormal cells can multiply in the cells in the far end of the fallopian tubes, which then migrate to the ovaries.
Risk Factors for Ovarian Cancer
There are certain genetic tendencies or even lifestyle choices that could put a woman more at risk of ovarian cancer. For starters, activities like smoking can not only put a woman at risk for ovarian cancer, it can put all men and women at risk for any form of cancer or disease.
However, just because you do have a specific risk factor (like a family history of cancer) doesn’t mean you will absolutely get ovarian cancer. The important thing is knowing the risk factors, understanding the symptoms and following a routine women’s health plan to make sure any issue is caught early.
Your age plays a big role in whether or not you’re at risk for ovarian cancer. In fact, as women age, their risk of developing ovarian cancer increases. The reason for this is because the older you are, the more times your body has ovulated. Cancer occurs when abnormal cells multiply, and ovulation is your body routinely producing cells. So the more cells your body is making, the more chances that they could become abnormal or cancerous.
Ovarian cancer is rare in women younger than 40, and most ovarian cancers develop after menopause.
Obesity has been linked with a higher risk of many cancers, not just ovarian cancer. While researchers have been unable to determine the exact link between ovarian cancer and obesity, studies still show that women who are overweight or obese tend to have a higher risk of ovarian cancer.
Women who have their first full-term pregnancy after the age of 35, or who have never carried a pregnancy to term have a higher risk of ovarian cancer.
Additionally, links have been made between fertility treatment such as in vitro fertilization (IVF) and an increase in risk of ovarian tumors.
Ovarian cancer can “run in families.” If your mother, sister or daughter has or has had ovarian cancer, you may be at a higher risk. The risk also increases the more family members who have who have had ovarian cancer (i.e. 3 family members versus 1).
Additionally, a family history of colorectal and breast cancer is also linked to an increase in ovarian cancer risk. The reason for this is that these types of cancers can be caused by a gene mutation that is often inherited.
Factors That Can Lower Risk
There are certain factors that could decrease the risk of ovarian cancer, though it’s not always guaranteed. The key is to make an informed chance or decision based on you, your lifestyle and a conversation between you and your doctor.
Pregnancy and breastfeeding
Just as mentioned above, women who carry a pregnancy to term earlier on in life have seen a lower risk of ovarian cancer. Additionally, studies have shown that breastfeeding has been linked with a lower risk.
Women who have used oral contraceptives (i.e. birth control pills) have seen a lower risk of ovarian cancer. The reason for this is because the pill will stop ovulation from happening. As addressed above, the less a woman’s body ovulates, the lower her potential risk of ovarian cancer.
Other forms of birth control have also been linked with a lower risk, like tubal ligation and short-term IUDs.
Early Detection is Key
Early detection is absolutely crucial when it comes to ovarian cancer. Catching cancer (of any kind) early allows for more treatment options.
Ovarian cancer can be detected early by a pelvic exam during a routine gynecology appointment. During this appointment, a gynecologist will feel the ovaries and uterus for size, shape and consistency.
If you begin experiencing any of the following symptoms, contact your gynecologist for an appointment, even if it’s not time for your annual:
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
- Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
- Urinary symptoms such as urgency (always feeling like you have to go) or frequency (having to go often)
- Upset stomach
- Back pain
- Pain during sex
- Changes in period (such as heavier bleeding than normal or irregular bleeding)
- Abdominal swelling with weight loss
We Are Here to Help
At Community Access Network, you have a team of providers who are dedicated to your health and care. Our on-site gynecologists can provide your annual physical for you, or see you if you experience any abnormal symptoms in between appointments.
If you have any questions at all about your reproductive health or symptoms you’re experiencing, call us for an appointment today.