PHILADELPHIA (August 13, 2019)—Fox Chase Cancer Center is raising awareness about the signs and risk factors for ovarian cancer. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), ovarian cancer ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women, accounting for more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system. The ACS estimates that in 2019, about 22,530 women will receive a new diagnosis of ovarian cancer, and about 13,980 women will die from the disease.
Only about 20 percent of ovarian cancers are found at an early stage. Often, early cancers of the ovaries cause no symptoms. In addition, the symptoms of ovarian cancer may also be caused by other, less serious conditions.
“Women must become familiar with the signs of ovarian cancer,” said Christina S. Chu, MD, professor, Department of Surgical Oncology, Fox Chase Cancer Center. “Every woman knows her own body. If her symptoms don’t seem normal and last for two weeks or longer, then she should bring them to her doctor’s attention immediately.”
- Abdominal bloating or swelling
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
- Back pain
- Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
- Weight loss
- Urinary symptoms, such as having to pass urine urgently or very often
- Pain during sex
- Menstrual changes
The ACS links several risk factors with ovarian cancer. “Having one or more risk factors does not mean a woman will develop the disease,” said Chu. “Even when a woman with ovarian cancer has a risk factor, it is extremely difficult to know the degree to which it may have contributed to her cancer.”
Factors that increase risk include:
- Age: A woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer increases with age. Most ovarian cancers develop after menopause, and half of all ovarian cancers are found in women 63 years of age or older.
- Obesity: Obese women (those with a body mass index of at least 30) seem to be at higher risk. Obesity may also affect the overall survival of a woman with ovarian cancer.
- Family history of ovarian, breast or colorectal cancer: A woman’s risk is greater if her mother, sister or daughter has (or has had) ovarian cancer. Her risk also gets higher with the more relatives she has with ovarian cancer. Increased risk can come also from the father's side. A family history of other types of cancers, including colorectal and breast, is also linked to a greater risk since these cancers can be caused by an inherited mutation in certain genes that cause a family cancer syndrome that increases the risk of ovarian cancer.
- Inherited gene mutation: About 5-10% of ovarian cancers are caused by an inherited gene mutation. Mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are known to significantly increase the risk of ovarian cancer and breast cancer. Mutations that cause Lynch syndrome (associated with colon, endometrial and ovarian cancer) can affect many different genes, including MLH1, MLH3, MSH2 and MSH6. “I advise women who have a family history of cancers, such as breast, ovarian, colon, and endometrial cancer, to talk with their doctor about their history risk so they, together, can determine next steps,” said Chu.
- Personal history of breast cancer: Women who have had breast cancer may have a greater risk.
- Hormone therapy after menopause: Women using estrogens after menopause have an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. The risk seems to be higher in women taking estrogen alone (without progesterone) for many years (at least 5 or 10).
There are also factors that can help lower a woman’s risk for ovarian cancer. These include:
- Pregnancy and breastfeeding. Women who have been pregnant and carried a pregnancy to term before age 26 have a lower risk of developing ovarian cancer. Also, the more children a woman has, the lower her risk is. Women who breastfeed further reduce their risk.
- Birth control. Women who have used oral contraceptives are at a lower risk of ovarian cancer. The lower risk is seen after only 3-6 months of using the pill, and the risk is lower the longer the pills are used. This decreased risk continues for many years after the pill is stopped.
Fox Chase offers a Risk Assessment Program for individuals and families concerned about their risk for certain types of cancer. Learn more about this program and other cancer risks and resources.