What Women Need to Know About Ovarian Cancer

By on July 29, 2018

By Kate Willett—

About 21,000 people in the U.S. get ovarian cancer every year, and 14,000 die from it. It’s the 10th most common cancer for women in the U.S. Knowing the risk factors and signs of ovarian cancer can help you detect it early, dramatically increasing your chance of recovery.

What is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer is cancer that typically begins in the ovaries. While it was previously thought that ovarian cancer could only start in the ovaries, recent evidence suggests it may also start in the fallopian tubes.

Ovaries are about the size of almond and are responsible for reproductive functions such as ovulation. Ovaries produce eggs, and are the main source of female hormones. People who are born biologically female typically have two ovaries.

There are over 30 types of ovarian cancer, classified by which kind of cell they start in.

What are the signs and symptoms?

According to the CDC, signs of ovarian cancer may include:

  • 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 area.
  • Abdominal or back pain.
  • Bloating.
  • Feeling full too quickly, or difficulty eating.
  • A change in your bathroom habits, such as more frequent or urgent need to urinate and/or constipation.

Since many of these symptoms can be caused by other, less serious problems, ovarian cancer can be difficult to detect. See a doctor right away if you have abnormal vaginal bleeding or any of the other symptoms for more than two weeks.

What are the risk factors?

  • Age is a primary risk factor. Women under 40 rarely get ovarian cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, half of ovarian cancers occur in women over 63.
  • Being overweight or obese can increase your risk.
  • Having a child before the age of 26 can lower your risk.  Each child you have lowers your risk even further. Breastfeeding lowers your risk even further.  Women who have never had a child or had a child after the age of 35 have a higher risk of ovarian cancer than women who carried full-term pregnancies before 35.
  • Fertility treatments such as IVF may increase your risk, but the evidence is yet inconclusive.
  • A family history of cancer, especially ovarian cancer, can increase your risk.
  • Breast cancer can increase your risk, as can smoking cigarettes.
  • Long term Estrogen Replacement Therapy can increase your risk
  • Alcohol use is not linked to increased risk.
  • Taking oral birth control (the pill) may decrease your risk.

What causes ovarian cancer?

The cause of ovarian cancer isn’t fully known, but scientists have a few theories. One theory is that ovulation can increase your risk for this form of cancer. Inherited or acquired genetic mutations might also cause it. Another theory is that male hormones (androgens) can cause ovarian cancer.

How can I detect it early?

There has been a lot of research to develop a screening test for ovarian cancer, but a reliable screening method hasn’t been found yet. It’s most important to look out for any symptoms of ovarian cancer and call your doctor if you’ve had any of the symptoms for more than 2 weeks.  

How can I prevent it?

There’s no foolproof way to prevent ovarian cancer, but you can reduce your risk.  Staying at a healthy weight, not smoking, and not taking hormone replacement therapy after menopause may help. Women with high risk factors may want to take birth controls pills. Women with especially high risk factors who are already having a hysterectomy for medical reasons may want to discuss removing their ovaries with their doctor.

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What Women Need to Know About Ovarian Cancer