10 Vital Facts for Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month

September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. Raising awareness of this disease is crucial -- awareness fuels awareness of the disease's risks and symptoms and helps raise the funds that power vital research.

This September, take a moment to make sure you're familiar with the statistics and facts about ovarian cancer.

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10 Things You Need to Know About Ovarian Cancer

#1: Ovarian Cancer is the Deadliest of Gynecological Cancers

The American Cancer Society estimates that 21,410 women in the United States will receive a new diagnosis of ovarian cancer in 2021. A woman's risk of getting ovarian cancer during her lifetime is 1 in 78. Ovarian cancer is the fifth-leading cause of cancer deaths in women; it is the deadliest of gynecological cancers.

#2: Ovarian Cancer is Treatable if Caught Early

When caught in its earliest stages, ovarian cancer is very treatable. The five-year survival rate is 93%. Unfortunately, however, the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition estimates that only about 20% of all cases are found early. In this case, "early" refers to Stage I or II.

#3: Most Ovarian Cancer is Not Diagnosed Until Advanced Stages

This means that the remaining 80% of cases of ovarian cancer are found when the disease has progressed to Stage III or IV when the cancer has spread beyond the pelvis or further.

There are many reasons why ovarian cancer is often caught in more advanced stages. This is in part due to a lack of effective screening tests. Additionally, the symptoms of ovarian cancer, especially in the early stages, are often vague and not severe.

#4: There's No Consistently Reliable Screening Test for Ovarian Cancer

Contrary to popular misconception, a pap smear does not detect ovarian cancer, it screens for cervical cancer. Although research is ongoing, there are currently no consistent screening tests available to women at average risk of ovarian cancer.

That said, if a woman has signs and symptoms or is at an increased risk, there are some tests available. This includes a pelvic exam, transvaginal ultrasound, and a CA-125 blood test.

#5: Signs and Symptoms Can Be Easy to Miss

The signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer can be easy to miss, giving it a reputation as a "silent" disease.

If the following symptoms persist for more than two weeks, contact your physician:

  • Bloating
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
  • Urinary frequency
  • Upset stomach, heartburn, or constipation
  • Back pain
  • Fatigue
  • Menstrual changes
  • Pain during sex

#6: Regularly Taking Birth Control Can Decrease Risk

Using birth control pills can decrease the risk of developing ovarian cancer for many women, especially when used for several years. According to the American Cancer Society, women who use oral contraceptives for 5 or more years have roughly a 50% lower risk of developing ovarian cancer.
That said, birth control pills can have serious side effects, including a slightly increased breast cancer risk in some women, so it's important to always discuss the risks and benefits with your doctor.

#7: Childbirth and Breastfeeding Can Decrease Risk

Childbirth and breastfeeding have also been shown to lower the risk of ovarian cancer. Women who have a full-term pregnancy have reduced risks of both ovarian and endometrial cancers. The risks of these cancers decline with each additional full-term pregnancy.

#8: Family History Can Impact Your Risk

Your family history can also impact your risk of ovarian cancer. For example, a family history of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, or colorectal cancer can increase your risk.

Additionally, certain inherited genetic mutations, BRCA1 and BRCA2 can increase your risk. Family cancer syndromes, like Lynch syndrome, Peutz-Jeghers Syndrome, or MUTYH-associated polyposis can also increase risk.

#9: Transgender Men May Have an Increased Risk

According to the National LGBT Cancer Network, transgender men may have increased risks for ovarian cancer.

This could be for several reasons, which include:

  • Transgender men are less likely to have used birth control pills, which can decrease risk.
  • Transgender men are less likely to experience pregnancy and breastfeeding, which can also decrease risk.
  • Transgender men are less likely to get regular medical and gynecological care than cisgender women.
  • This community faces increased levels of discrimination.

#10: Ovarian Cancer Risk Rises As You Age

The risk of developing ovarian cancer begins rising after age 40, and most ovarian cancers develop after menopause. Half of all ovarian cancers are found in women 63 years of age or older.

Ovarian cancer is a frightening disease, but understanding your risk factors and what symptoms to watch out for can help. This September, make sure you know your risk for ovarian cancer.

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