Do you know the awareness color for ovarian cancer?
If you didn’t, you’re not alone – while ovarian cancer is the fifth deadliest form of cancer for women, killing an estimated 14,000 women in the year 2017 alone, it’s not as well-known as the “pink” for breast cancer – but awareness of the disease (beyond just what color its awareness ribbons are) can save lives.
And the month of September is a heightened time to be aware of it: it’s National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month.
“Ovarian cancer causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system, but it accounts for only about 3 percent of all cancers in women,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “When ovarian cancer is found in its early stages, treatment works best.”
In fact, when ovarian cancer is diagnosed early and still in the ovary, the five-year survival rate is 93 percent. But only 20 percent of cases are caught in this stage, according to the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition.
So why isn’t ovarian cancer better known? One of the reasons is because its symptoms can be mistaken for other medical issues, HealthCentral writer PJ Hamel says in a 2017 story about ovarian cancer symptoms.
“Both the American Cancer Society (ACS) and National Cancer Institute list similar symptoms that may signal ovarian cancer,” she writes. “Unfortunately, by the time these symptoms become apparent, the cancer is often advanced. That’s why ovarian cancer is so much deadlier than breast cancer; it’s much, much harder to catch early on, when it’s more easily treatable.”
“There is no early detection test,” says Kim Price, director, marketing & strategy, National Ovarian Cancer Coalition. “A common myth amongst women of all ages is that the pap test detects ovarian cancer. It does not. Until there is an early detection test, it is our duty as women to share the signs and symptoms of the disease with our sisters, mothers, daughters, and friends.”
Knowing the symptoms and limitations of testing for ovarian cancer is key to better awareness of the disease. Knowing your medical history can help too, including if there’s a family history of breast cancer or ovarian cancer. Hamel has written on the link between the two in this story on HealthCentral, including the increased risk with the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.
“There are certain hereditary genetic mutations that can make you at higher risk of the disease," Price says. "Make sure that you know your family history and explore the option of genetic testing with your doctor. Knowing can save your life!”
What are ovarian cancer symptoms?
Ovarian cancer symptoms include:
- Pain/pressure in the abdomen.
- Loss of appetite, feeling full quickly.
- Urinary “urgency” (having to go more often).
- Vaginal discharge, heavy or irregular vaginal bleeding, especially after menopause.
But these symptoms could easily be associated with other health issues, including bowel issues, or mistaken for menopause symptoms (or even pregnancy!). About half of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer are 63 years or older. Price says that every woman should be aware of these symptoms, with the key being “especially if these symptoms are bothersome and/or persistent."
“Women are often misdiagnosed several times before being diagnosed with ovarian cancer, likely because they haven’t put these symptoms together as ovarian cancer being the cause,” she says.
If you have these symptoms more than 2 weeks: Schedule an appointment with your doctor, even if you feel like you might be wrong or don’t really think there’s any problem. It won’t be a waste of time. You won’t be a bother. And if you’re wrong, it won’t be embarrassing — you’ll be taking care of your health.
Relate all your symptoms to your doctor. Ask if ovarian cancer might be a possibility.
And if your sister, mother, daughter, or friend complain of these health issues, encourage them to go to their doctor and speak up.
The ACS also recommends that, as well seeing a doctor if women have symptoms, they should have regular women’s health exams and, if necessary, one (or both) of the tests used most often to screen for ovarian cancer, a transvaginal ultrasound (TVUS) and the CA-125 blood test. However, those two tests have not lowered the number of deaths from ovarian cancer, so vigilance is still important with these symptoms.
“Please, please, let every woman in your life know about the symptoms of ovarian cancer,” Price says. “It has been called the ‘silent killer,’ but there are warning signs.”
Learn more about National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month resources
Want to learn more about ovarian cancer? Here are some websites with information about the disease, as well as about the awareness month.
American Cancer Society: The ACS has a section dedicated to ovarian cancer, including about it, what’s new in research, and other helpful information.
Choose Hope: Find everything teal-colored and ovarian cancer awareness ready.
National Ovarian Cancer Coalition: According to Price, “for more than 25 years, the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition has been proud to provide the most up-to-date information on ovarian cancer through its educational materials (available online or in print by calling 888-OVARIAN), through early awareness events such as health fairs and speakers bureaus, and by expanding its community outreach through social media channels. The NOCC’s signature community outreach event, the Run/Walk to Break the Silence on Ovarian Cancer®, takes place in more than 20 cities across the United States each year. To find an event near you, visit ovarian.org.”
OvarianCancerAwareness.org: This organization is a coalition of three institutions, The M. Patricia Cronin Foundation to Fight Ovarian Cancer, The Dana-Faber/Brigham & Women’s Cancer Center, and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. It was founded in 2000 to raise awareness of ovarian cancer. The organization shares stories of those impacted by the disease as well as information about ovarian cancer.
Cancer Research Fund Alliance: This organization is the “largest non-government funder of ovarian cancer research in the U.S. — and we have the longest track record — and have the longest track record of impact. Since 1998, we have invested $75 million to jumpstart promising research.” It offers insights into statistics, stories, and other information about ovarian cancer in one location.
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Erin is senior editor at HealthCentral.com. She’s a medical writer and editor with 15 years’ experience specializing in medical communications for physician and patient expert audiences. Follow her on Twitter @ErinLBoyle.