Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) healthcare providers want to make women aware of some facts about ovarian cancer that could save their lives.
According to the American Cancer Society’s most recent estimates, approximately 22,280 women will receive a new diagnosis of ovarian cancer and approximately 15,500 will die from it in the U.S. this year.
“The high mortality rate of ovarian cancer is due to the fact that in over 70 percent of cases, it has metastasized when it is originally diagnosed,” said Army Maj. (Dr.) Michael Stany, staff physician in the WRNMMC Gynecological Cancer Center of Excellence.
“Unfortunately, to date, there are no screening strategies accurate enough and capable of identifying ovarian cancer at an early, curable stage,” said Air Force Lt. Col. (Dr.) Chad Hamilton, chief of the WRNMMC’s Gynecological Cancer Center of Excellence.
However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), women should pay attention to their bodies and know what is normal for them. Symptoms may include vaginal bleeding or discharge; pelvic/abdominal pain; back pain; bloating in the area below the stomach; feeling full quickly while eating; and a change in bathroom habits, such as frequency of urination, constipation or diarrhea.
While these symptoms are vague, Hamilton said the idea that ovarian cancer is a “silent” cancer, with symptoms appearing only late in the disease process, is a misconception.
“Women with ovarian cancers are often times symptomatic several months before the diagnosis, even with early-stage disease,” he added.
Recent studies confirmed this. “Researchers have found that bloating, change in abdominal size, and urinary symptoms occurred in 43 percent of women diagnosed as having ovarian cancer,” said Hamilton.
At the most basic level, ovarian cancer is caused by a corruption of processes that regulate the body’s cellular machinery particularly, those processes involved in cell division and death, explained Hamilton.
“Most of the time, it is sporadic,” said Stany. “Only 10 percent of patients with ovarian cancer have a genetic predisposition through mutation of the BRCA (Breast Cancer) genes that, when mutated, greatly increase a woman’s lifetime risk of ovarian cancer to 20 to 50 percent. Their risk of breast cancer can be as high as 70 percent. Excluding women who carry the BRCA mutation, a woman’s risk of getting ovarian cancer is 1 in 70,” he explained. For women with the BRCA mutation, there are many things that increase and decrease that risk.
The physicians explained the BRCA (Breast Cancer) gene in people is responsible for controlling cell growth, and mutations in the gene can put a person at a higher risk for breast and other cancers, including ovarian cancer in women.
Hamilton added, “the number of times a woman ovulates in her life, such as early puberty, late menopause, and never having children, increases the risk of ovarian cancer.”
Similarly, giving birth, breast feeding, and taking oral contraceptives tend to decrease the risk; and for unclear reasons, having a tubal ligation or hysterectomy decreases the risk, said Hamilton.
Stany said women with persistent abnormal symptoms, or who have a significant family history of ovarian or breast cancer, should see their doctor.
As with most cancers, ovarian cancer is best treated in the early stage, the doctors explained. Women identified as having a high risk of developing ovarian cancer should consider removal of their ovaries.
“While ovarian cancer has been labeled a silent disease, women are encouraged to pay close attention to their bodies,” said Stany.
For more information or to make an appointment, call the WRNMMC Gynecological Cancer Center of Excellence at 301-400-1258.