Health & Medicine

Screening saves lives: What women should know about ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer mortality in American women. The U.S. will see nearly 22,000 new cases of ovarian cancer this year, and more than 15,000 women will die of the disease. In Kentucky this year we expect about 350 new cases of ovarian cancer and 220 deaths.

We know that the risk for developing ovarian cancer is linked to several factors. Age is a major one — women 50 and older are at a higher risk. Women who have a documented family history of ovarian or breast cancers are also more likely to develop the disease.

And a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation (which can be determined through genetic testing) is linked to a higher chance of developing both ovarian and breast cancers.

Other factors include an early age of beginning menstruation, late age at natural menopause, endometriosis, infertility or not bearing children, obesity, and hormone replacement therapy.

Using oral contraceptives for five or more years, particularly from ages 20 to 30, can reduce ovarian cancer risk by half. Higher-risk women who have already completed childbearing can undergo prophylactic surgical removal of both ovaries and fallopian tubes, thereby eliminating their risk for this type of cancer. Bearing children and breastfeeding also seem to lower ovarian cancer risk.

Be concerned if you experience: vaginal bleeding (particularly if you are past menopause) or discharge from your vagina that is not normal for you; pain or pressure in the pelvic or abdominal area; back pain; abdominal bloating; feeling full quickly while eating; changes in bathroom habits such as having to pass urine very badly or very often, constipation, or diarrhea.

Unfortunately, because the symptoms of ovarian cancer are easily attributed to other causes, women often don't seek help right away and aren't diagnosed until the cancer is advanced.

While the cure rate for advanced ovarian cancer is low (approximately 10 percent), the disease is highly curable if detected early: the 5-year survival rate of ovarian cancer that has not metastasized is 95 percent. Therefore, screening at-risk women before symptoms occur is an important way to detect ovarian cancer at an earlier and more curable stage.

The University of Kentucky Ovarian Cancer Screening Program offers free screenings via transvaginal ultrasound to all Kentucky women over 50 and women over the age of 25 with a documented history of ovarian cancer.

Five-year survival for ovarian cancer patients detected by screening (in the UK Ovarian Cancer Screening Program) is nearly double that of ovarian cancer patients who did not have screening. For more information on the UK Ovarian Cancer Screening Program, call 1-800-766-8279.