What You Need to Know About Ovarian Cancer


September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness month, so it’s ideal timing to raise awareness about one of the most serious forms of cancer. Unlike the mammogram for breast cancer or the Pap smear for cervical cancer, no effective screening methods exist for early ovarian cancer detection. It is most often diagnosed through regular health exams and by imaging methods, such as ultrasound and computed tomography. A woman’s best defense against this disease is to learn all about it, including how to reduce risk factors, recognize common symptoms and understand treatment options.

The risk of developing ovarian cancer can potentially be reduced by taking birth control pills, having a hysterectomy or giving birth and breastfeeding for one year or more. Common risk factors include:

  • Age 55 or older
  • Early onset (before age 12) of menstruation
  • Family history of ovarian cancer
  • Harboring a genetic mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2
  • Having first child after age 30 or not having children
  • Menopause after age 50
  • Personal history of breast cancer
  • Prolonged use of fertility drugs


Not everyone exhibits these risk factors, so be able to recognize common symptoms, including bloating, abdominal or pelvic pain, trouble eating, feeling full quickly and urinary problems. These symptoms are relatively nominal and can occur with other ailments, but check with a gynecologist if their occurrence is unusual and persistent. Studies are currently underway to effectively detect ovarian cancer in its earliest stages. However, until a reliable screening is developed, see a gynecologist if there is any suspicion of ovarian cancer. Identifiable symptoms do exist, and patients must be looking for them.

In addition to symptom awareness, patients can test their susceptibility for developing breast and ovarian cancers. BRCA1 and BRCA2 are acronyms for susceptibility genes, and harmful mutations in these two genes have been linked to the development of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.

Most people do not need BRCA testing, since only about five to 10 percent of breast and ovarian cancers are thought to be hereditary. Testing is usually helpful when there is a strong family history of breast and ovarian cancer. Those rare individuals with a BRCA genetic predisposition can benefit from preventive removal of the ovaries and tubes.

There are treatment options for ovarian cancer, and therapy is dependent on how far the cancer has spread and the patient’s general health. Upon suspicion of ovarian cancer, patients are often referred to a Gynecologic Oncologist. The Gynecologic Oncologist will generally perform an initial “debulking” operation removing the uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries and as much of the cancer as possible. This procedure is thought to be an important adjunct to chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is then administered to attack any remaining cancer. Younger women who have very early stages of ovarian cancer and wish to have children one day may retain their uterus and normal ovary for fertility purposes.

Dr. Mack Barnes is a board-certified gynecologic oncologist with Brookwood Baptist Medical Center. This article was featured in Birmingham Parent.

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