In June, one of the most recognized faces in television news revealed she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
CNN’s chief international anchor, Christiane Amanpour made the announcement in the opening minute of her June 14 broadcast of “Amanpour and Company.” She said she went public to inspire women “to educate themselves on this disease” and “to always listen to your bodies.”
Ovarian cancer is a relatively silent killer. Many of the symptoms can be mistaken for aging or other conditions. The greatest risk factors are genetic and there is no screening for the disease. Identifying it requires knowing your family’s medical history and having a good partnership with your health care provider.
Make yourself aware
September is an ideal time to bring up the topic since it’s Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month.
It is the fifth most common cause of cancer death among women. It is estimated that one in 78 women will develop ovarian cancer and 21,000 will be diagnosed in 2021. There is a 93% five-year survival rate when diagnosed and treated in its earliest stages. Surgery and chemotherapy are generally used to treat ovarian cancer.
Ovarian cancer starts in the ovaries — the parts of the female reproductive system that contain the eggs and produce female hormones. It often goes undetected until it moves to the pelvis or abdomen and even then, the symptoms are usually harmless or mistaken for something else.
Signs and symptoms may include:
- Unusual vaginal discharge or post-menopausal bleeding
- Pelvic pain
- Back or abdominal pain
- Difficulty eating or feeling full too quickly
- More frequent and urgent need to urinate
Risk and protective factors
Risk factors are anything that could contribute to the possibility of developing an illness. With ovarian cancer, there are some risk factors that are unavoidable. There are, however, some protective factors that could help prevent ovarian cancer.
Risk factors include:
- Family history — A woman with two or more immediate relatives, like a mother and sister with increased risk, also has an increased risk.
- Inherited risk — It’s increased in women who inherited changes in certain genes like BRCA1 and BRCA2. It’s also increased in women who have certain inherited syndromes.
- Hormone replacement therapy — There is a slightly increased risk for women taking replacement hormones after menopause.
- Height and weight — Being tall has been linked to a slight increase and obesity is linked to an increased risk.
- Endometriosis — Women who have endometriosis have an increased risk.
Protective factors include:
- Oral contraceptives — The longer you’ve been on “the pill,” the lower the risk may be. It may also last up to 30 years after you’ve stopped taking it.
- Tubal ligation — The risk is reduced for women who had surgery to close both fallopian tubes.
- Birth — Giving birth to one child reduces the risk of developing ovarian cancer and decreases with more children.
- Breastfeeding — Women who breastfeed between eight to 10 months have the greatest decrease in risk of ovarian cancer.
- Salpingo-oophorectomy — Women facing a high risk of developing ovarian cancer sometimes elect to have their fallopian tubes and ovaries removed. Have a cancer risk assessment before doing this.
Detection is key
Finding ovarian cancer early greatly improves the chance of survival since treatment can start quickly. Having women’s health exams regularly improves the odds of finding ovarian cancer early. It’s important to talk to your doctor if you have been experiencing any symptoms for more than just a couple of weeks.
Two tests that have been used to screen for ovarian cancer include the transvaginal ultrasound and CA-125 blood test. The ultrasound can help find a mass in an ovary, yet it can’t tell if the mass is cancer or benign. CA-125 is a type of protein and a blood test can measure the amount of that protein in the blood. Many — but not all — women with ovarian cancer have high levels of CA-125. Most often, however, high levels of this protein are caused by more common conditions like endometriosis or pelvic inflammatory disease.
Talk to your doctor
Women have unique health care needs and AltaMed is here to care for you at every stage of your life. Schedule a well-woman exam or other age-appropriate health screenings and make sure to mention any concerns you may have. We’re here to listen and to support you and those you love.
If you don’t have a regular gynecologist or you’d like to find someone who speaks your language, AltaMed is here for you. Use our Find a Doctor tool to search based on your preferences. You can choose the gender you’re most comfortable with, preferred language, and the city – you’ll find great AltaMed doctors who can keep you and your whole family healthy.