Recognize the Risks and Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer

August 19, 2021

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.

Patient

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.

Woman

Symptoms

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
  • Bloating
  • Difficulty eating or feeling full too quickly
  • More frequent and urgent need to urinate
  • Constipation

Family

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.

Ultrasound

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.

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Endometriosis: Beyond Menstrual Cramps

March 05, 2021

For most women, we know that when our period comes each month, we can expect a little pain – maybe a day or two of cramping, some short-lived aches in the lower back. But for 10% of women, that pain is “curl into the fetal position and weep” bad, and it’s due to a condition called endometriosis.
Little was known about endometriosis just a few decades ago. Doctors and family members of patients with endometriosis often dismissed the symptoms. They couldn’t believe the pain of a period could be that bad, and that it was all in a woman’s head. But endometriosis is very real thing that happens in a woman’s body and can cause debilitating pain and may even lead to infertility.

What It Is

Endometriosis or “endo” is named after the endometrium or tissue that normally lines the womb. Endometriosis happens when endometrium grows outside the uterus or on other organs.

The most common locations for endometriosis are:

  • Ovaries
  • Fallopian tubes
  • Tissue anchoring the uterus
  • The outside of the uterus

Growths are also found on the vagina, cervix, vulva, bowel, bladder, or rectum.

The Symptoms

endometriosis

The most common symptom is pain. It has been described by some women as “killer cramps.” It happens because the tissue is growing where it shouldn’t, and your body can’t easily get rid of it.

Other common symptoms include:

  • Long or heavy periods
  • Migraines or lower back pain during periods
  • Pain when pooping or peeing during a period
  • Allergies are worse around a period
  • Vaginal bleeding between periods
  • Blood in the urine or rectum
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Bloating
  • Trouble getting pregnant

Women with endometriosis do get pregnant, but researchers have found as many as half of the cases result in infertility.

It’s not clear how endometriosis causes infertility, but some theories include:

  • Blocking access to reproductive organs or changing their shape making it harder for sperm to find the egg
  • The immune system sometimes attacks the embryo
  • The uterine lining doesn’t develop so the egg can’t implant

Who Is at Risk?

Endometriosis can affect any woman who menstruates. Most women are diagnosed when they’re in their 30s and 40s.

You face a higher risk if:

  • Your mother, sister or daughter is diagnosed
  • You got your period before you were 11
  • Your monthly cycle is less than 27 days
  • Your cycles are heavy and longer than seven days

You can take a couple of steps to lower your risk, like exercising more than four hours a week or maintaining a low amount of body fat. You’re also at a lower risk if your period started in late adolescence or you’ve been pregnant before.

Treating endometriosis

endometriosis

A number of factors go into the treatment of endometriosis. Your symptoms, your condition, overall health, tolerance for certain treatments and medications, and the desire for pregnancy all play a role.
Doctors will usually recommend pain medication and pain management tips if the symptoms are mild”

Some tips for managing the pain include:

  • Warm baths
  • A heating pad or hot water bottle on the abdomen
  • Rest and relaxation
  • Meditation and other forms of self-care
  • Regular exercise
  • Plenty of fiber

Hormone therapy is another option. Oral contraception is used to prevent ovulation and reduce menstrual flow. Another hormone can be given which induces “medical menopause.” This suppresses the menstrual cycle and activity of the ovaries in an attempt to resolve the endometriosis.

There are also surgical techniques:

  • Laparoscopy — This is also used to diagnose endometriosis. A thin tube with a lens and light are inserted through the abdomen to give a view of the pelvic area. The doctor can also remove growths this way.
  • Laparotomy — This is a more involved procedure where the doctor moves as much of the tissue as possible without damaging healthy tissue.
  • Hysterectomy — This is often the last resort resulting in the removal of the uterus and ovaries.

Meeting Women’s Unique Needs

Women need compassionate care that is customized for the unique health issues they could face at each stage of life. AltaMed provides services that empower women grow healthy at every age.

These include:

  • Well-woman exams
  • Reproductive health
  • Routine screenings
  • Mammograms/breast health
  • Family planning
  • Health education
  • Health and wellness
  • Behavioral health

For more information about services, visit Womens-Health or call (888) 499-9303.

Pancreatic Cancer Affects Fewer but Is Deadlier than Other Cancers

November 03, 2020

Cancer is a terrifying diagnosis. The cells in the body grow out of control, crowding out normal cells and creating complications in the part of the body where they’re growing.

Cancer screenings and early detection have improved the survival rates with several more common cancers like breast, lung, prostate, and skin cancer. But pancreatic cancer is hard to detect, has limited screenings, and the diagnosis usually comes too late. It only accounts for about 3 percent of all cancers in the U.S. but more than twice the percentage of cancer deaths — 7 percent. Only 9 percent of those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer live to five years.

The Difficulty with Detection

Section 1

The pancreas is a six-inch-long gland between the stomach and the spine. It makes enzymes that help with digestion and hormones that control blood-sugar levels. Its location within the body makes it difficult for doctors to feel any growths or scan. It’s blocked by the stomach, small intestine, liver, gallbladder, spleen and bile ducts. Symptoms don’t appear until the tumor has grown very large or the cancer has spread to other organs. The symptoms are also similar to many of the symptoms of other illnesses, making it that much harder to diagnose.

Some signs or symptoms include:

  • Yellow skin and eyes
  • Light-colored stools
  • Dark urine
  • Pain in the upper or middle abdomen and back
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Appetite loss
  • Exhaustion

These are symptoms for exocrine tumors of the pancreas which are the most common pancreatic cancer.

Types of Pancreatic Tumors

Section 2

Most pancreatic tumors are exocrine, meaning they start with the cells that produce digestive enzymes. About 93 percent of pancreatic cancers are this type. In nine out of 10 cases the resulting tumor is called adenocarcinoma. Other exocrine tumors include:

  • Acinar cell carcinoma which causes the pancreas to make too much of an enzyme that digests fats.
  • Intraductal papillary-mucinous neoplasm (IPMN) which can start benign but become cancerous, especially if it’s formed in the main pancreatic duct.
  • Mucinous cystic neoplasm with an invasive adenocarcinoma is a cyst filled with thick fluid formed on the “tail” of the pancreas. It’s found mostly in women.

Realizing the Risks

Section 3

There is no single cause of pancreatic cancer and it can affect anyone. It killed comedian Bill Hicks at the age of 32 while Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg battled the disease for 11 years before passing at 87. People are most often diagnosed after the age of 65.

There are factors that could increase the risk including:

  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Chronic inflammation of the pancreas
  • Family history of genetic syndromes that increase cancer risk
  • Family history of pancreatic cancer
  • Obesity
  • Older age

While nothing can be done about aging or family history, you can reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer if you:

  • Don’t smoke. This includes vaping. Quit if you do. Your doctor can help with medications, support groups, or nicotine replacement therapy.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Smaller portions of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, combined with exercise, can put you on the path to losing one to two pounds a week, and help with weight loss.
  • Eat healthy. A colorful variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, with fewer processed foods, can help reduce the risk of numerous cancers, including pancreatic.
  • Control your diabetes. Routine testing, exercise, a healthy diet, and regularly taking your medication as prescribed will help keep diabetes from becoming a contributing factor.

You may want to talk to a genetic counselor if your family has a history of pancreatic cancer. Genetic testing can help determine if you inherited similar genetic sequences. This doesn’t mean you have pancreatic cancer, but you may have inherited traits that put you at an increased risk. With that knowledge, you and your doctor can decide on whether to schedule an endoscopic ultrasound or an MRI. These tests aren’t used to screen the general public, but someone with a strong family history or a genetic syndrome is a candidate for screening.

We’re Here for You

Section 4

AltaMed can help with frank discussions about family history and recommend a genetic specialist to test for the markers that may indicate a higher risk of pancreatic cancer.

Regular checkups are the best way to stay healthy. You can find a doctor at the following link or make an appointment by calling (888) 499-9303.