Edward Pavlik: September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month;  Early detection is key

September is Ovarian Cancer Education Month. In the United States, ovarian cancer causes more deaths than any other gynecological cancer. Too often ovarian cancer occurs at an advanced stage with no symptoms and the prognosis is very poor; However, if it is detected early, ovarian cancer can be cured with surgery alone.

(Photo by Chinnapong, iStock / Getty Images Plus, via University of Kentucky)

The risk of ovarian cancer increases with age. It may be associated with a history of endometriosis, family members who have had ovarian cancer, a personal diagnosis of breast cancer, Lynch syndrome (HNPCC), Ashkenazi ancestry, or certain predisposing genes. Women who have never had full pregnancy, had difficulty getting pregnant, or had their first child after age 35 are at increased risk of ovarian cancer. If you are concerned about these factors, talk to your doctor about your risk and whether genetic counseling might be appropriate for you.

Ovarian cancer symptoms are most commonly associated with advanced disease and include:

• bloating or swelling in the abdomen, back pain;
• rapid feeling of fullness when eating;
• pelvic discomfort;
• fatigue; and
• Changes in bathing habits.

However, a variety of common medical conditions can exhibit these symptoms as well.

It is therefore important to detect ovarian cancer early. The UK’s research program on the early detection of ovarian cancer focuses on early detection by screening the general population using transvaginal ultrasound. This is the same modality used diagnostically when a person is experiencing symptoms or when someone is at high risk of ovarian cancer. The procedure is painless, takes less than 10 minutes and is free in the UK.

You are eligible for free UK ovarian cancer screening if you:

• Over 50 years of age (including women who have no symptoms and no personal history of ovarian cancer)

• Are over 25 years of age and have a family history of ovarian cancer or other risk factors

While there is no known way to absolutely prevent ovarian cancer, there are a few things that have been linked to lowering your risk of ovarian cancer including:

• Multiple pregnancies, especially before the age of 26;
• breastfeeding;
• Use of oral contraceptives (protection lasts for up to 30 years after stopping); and
• Surgery to remove the ovaries and fallopian tubes.

Edward Pavlik, MD, is the director of the ovarian cancer screening program at the University of Kentucky HealthCare