In September, the color teal swept the nation as we commemorated Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. Women all over the country continue to fundraise for disease research and spreading information on the dangers of ovarian cancer. So what about you? Are you helping the cause? Do you know the facts? Let’s start with the basics. Ovarian cancer is a type of cancer that develops in one or both of a woman’s ovaries or the connected fallopian tubes. According to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund Alliance, in its mildest form, ovarian cancer can be treated by removing the affected ovaries and fallopian tubes. In its worst form though, ovarian cancer can spread to other organs and tissues in the body as far as the brain itself. It’s not particularly surprising that as the cancer worsens or spreads, a woman’s survival rate can decrease. The true surprise of ovarian cancer, however, is the presence and intensity of the diseases itself. 85% of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer are diagnosed at more advanced stages of the disease where their life expectancy is already significantly decreased. So, why is ovarian cancer frequently diagnosed so late in the game? Ovarian cancer is aptly described as a “silent” disease because it has very few obvious symptoms and has a limited selection of testing methods. Many women overlook ovarian cancer symptoms like menstrual changes, bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, fatigue, or pain during sex, instead attributing these experiences to menopause or a typical menstrual cycle. Who can blame them? On the other hand, doctors have a difficult time diagnosing the disease as well. Every year, a woman undergoes an annual Pap smear which tests for cervical cancer. It is recommended that she perform a monthly breast self-examination in an effort to diagnose breast cancer as well. Ovarian cancer has no comparable self exam or standard test done annually by a gynecologist. The only sure-fire way to diagnose ovarian cancer is through a biopsy of a tumor. So how do we take on a silent killer? We arm ourselves with knowledge. It’s important to know who is most at risk for ovarian cancer, what increases and decreases your chances for ovarian cancer, and how to be proactive with an early diagnosis. By knowing the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer, we hope that more women will be able to receive an early and more treatable diagnosis. When looking at the risks of ovarian cancer, we’ll start with the risk factors that we can’t control. Age - As a woman nears fifty and approaches post-menopause, her chances for developing ovarian cancer increase. In fact, half of the women diagnosed are over the age of sixty. Now that isn’t to say that a young woman in her twenties isn’t at risk. Ovarian cancer has been found in women of all ages, but older women are more at risk than their younger counterparts. Medical History - Women with a family history of breast or ovarian cancer have an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer themselves. The CDC has put together a chart detailing the increased risk based on the closeness of the affected relatives in your bloodline. Another piece of medical history that affects a woman’s chance for developing ovarian cancer is her own background. Women who have past experiences with colorectal, breast, or cervical cancer are at a greater risk for developing ovarian cancer. Women who check one or both of these boxes when it comes to their medical history are recommended for genetic testing. According to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, “Women with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation have a lifetime risk of 15 to 40 percent for developing ovarian cancer.” Ancestry - Speaking of the genetic mutations BRCA1 and BRCA2, a high number of women with Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry (Jewish women with family roots in Eastern Europe) have been found to carry the mutations. The Norton & Elaine Sarnoff Center for Jewish Genetics reports that “1 in 40 Ashkenazi Jews” carry these mutations that increase their risk for breast and ovarian cancer. Again, these risk factors are all things that a woman can’t control. No magic pill or elixir can prevent a woman from aging, alter her DNA, or replace her heritage. However, there are other risk factors that we can control. There are lifestyle choices that lower a woman’s chances for developing ovarian cancer. Let’s look at some of these options. Pregnancy & Breastfeeding - When a woman is pregnant, she stops ovulating. This time without ovulation actually reduces a woman’s chances of developing ovarian cancer. Breastfeeding can also reduce a woman’s risk. When a woman is breastfeeding, her estrogen levels will decrease which inherently causes a decrease in ovulation. Of course, pregnancy is a very personal decision with many factors to consider apart from a decreased ovarian cancer risk. Birth Control - Oral contraceptives have been found to reduce a woman’s ovarian cancer risk by nearly 50% if taken for five or more years. It is important to discuss your contraceptive options with your doctor before you start any medication. Talcum Powder - Studies and recent verdicts have found a correlation between talc-based baby powders and ovarian cancer. While the exact relationship between the two is still uncertain, talc particles found in biopsied ovarian cancer tumors have created a cause for doubt in the consumer market where talc-based baby powders are concerned. Weight - Staying fit and leading a healthy lifestyle full of exercise and good nutrition can reduce both a woman’s ovarian cancer risk and increase her survival rate in the event that she does develop ovarian cancer. Obesity lowers your body’s overall workflow and efficiency, reducing its ability to fight diseases and work properly. Women who are obese (with a body mass index over 30) are more at risk for ovarian cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Hysterectomy & Tubal Ligation - If you have a high risk for ovarian cancer due to your family or personal medical history, gynecological surgery is one option that does reduce your risk for ovarian cancer as you are removing your ovaries and in some cases your fallopian tubes as well. However, like pregnancy, a hysterectomy should not be considered lightly and certainly not as a means to prevent ovarian cancer unless otherwise recommended by a doctor. Ovarian cancer is the fifth most deadly cancer to women; it is not something to be taken lightly. By knowing your risk level, taking healthy precautions, and monitoring your body for possible symptoms, you are that much more prepared for an early diagnosis if it should ever occur during your life. We can prevent needless deaths and work towards a cure with every new voice that joins the cause. This month, share this information with the women in your life and arm your loved ones with the knowledge to fight ovarian cancer.
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