Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, but ovarian cancer still affects more than 250,000 women every year. It accounts for around three percent of cancer cases among women, and claims the lives of more patients than any other female productive cancer. May 8 is World Ovarian Cancer Day, and there are definitely some things you should know about this disease.
Thanks largely to efforts by Susan G. Komen for the Cure and the astonishing frequency of diagnosis, breast cancer is usually the female-centric cancer making headlines. But over the last few months, ovarian cancer has also been a hot topic after actress/director/real-life goddess Angelina Jolie revealed in an op-ed for The New York Times that she’d had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed in order to prevent the possibility of ovarian cancer. Jolie had already had a preventative double mastectomy because she is a carrier of the BRCA1 gene.
More recently, Avengers: Age of Ultron actress Cobie Smulders revealed in the May issue of Women’s Health that she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer when she was 25 years old. Both women have helped bring some attention to ovarian cancer and the risk it poses to all women. And since it can affect anyone, take a moment to educate yourself on a few key facts.
1. Any woman can get ovarian cancer
Though relatively rare, ovarian cancer is diagnosed in more than 250,000 women worldwide every year. And unlike other cancers, it affects women in developed and developing countries similarly. Also, while the diagnosis rate is higher in some age and ethnic groups, the cancer affects women across the spectrum. Basically, any woman who is capable of giving birth (as in, her ovaries are intact and working) is at risk.
2. Caucasian women have a statistically higher rate
Even though the disease can affect any woman, Caucasian women develop ovarian cancer at a higher rate than women of color in the United States. By extension, the mortality rate in Caucasian women is also higher.
3. Ovarian cancer can be hard to detect
Because most of the early symptoms of ovarian cancer are also linked with common problems, the disease isn’t always detected early on. Common symptoms include bloating (common during PMS), pelvic pain or discomfort and frequent urination (common with a urinary tract infection), and persistent lack of energy (common with being an busy adult). However, these symptoms will last longer and increase over time, which might be a tip off that something else is wrong.
4. Early stage detection is key to a higher survival rate
As with most cancers, early detection of ovarian cancer will improve a patient’s chances of survival. Up to 90 percent of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the early stages are likely to survive for up to five years. Unfortunately, ovarian cancer is often detected in the late stages, so if you have experienced any of the most common symptoms of ovarian cancer, speak with your doctor about getting a diagnosis.
5. A Pap smear does not detect ovarian cancer
This is a big misconception. While a Pap smear or Pap test can detect pre-cancerous cells in the cervix, it cannot detect cancerous cells in your ovaries. Because most Pap tests are done yearly, cervical cancer can be detected early and is one of the most successfully treatable cancers. In order to detect ovarian cancer, you would need to get a pelvic exam or another test to detect cancerous cells.
6. Genetics is the biggest risk factor, but not the only one
If a close relative, such as your mother, sister, or daughter, has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer or has the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, your risk for cancer triples. Recently, Angelina Jolie made headlines for having her fallopian tubes and ovaries removed because of the BRCA1 gene and her mother’s death from ovarian cancer. Aside from genetic risks, fertility drugs, hormone replacement therapy after menopause, and obesity, among other things, have also been linked to ovarian cancer.
7. Birth control pills can help lower your risk
If you take a form of oral contraceptive, you may be at a lower risk for ovarian cancer. Some studies have shown that taking a birth control pill can help decrease your risk for ovarian cancer by 15 percent for every five years you take it, and up to 50 percent if you’ve used it for 15 years or more. Basically, the fewer times that you ovulate during your life time (something that pregnancy, breastfeeding, and birth control prevent), the lower the risk that the fluid released with an egg could damage your fallopian tube cells.
8. You can still have children after ovarian cancer
While most patients with ovarian cancer are past their baby making days, some aren’t. Cobie Smulders recently opened up about being diagnosed with ovarian cancer when she was just 25 years old, and has since had two children. But depending on when the cancer is diagnosed, if it affects one or both ovaries, and what type of treatment is necessary to eradicate the cancer, women who beat the cancer still have options to conceive.