Every 23 minutes, a woman is diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and one in 75 will develop the disease in their lifetime (source: National Cancer Institute). While most women are aware of their breast cancer risk, fewer are aware of their risk of ovarian cancer or the subtle early symptoms of the disease which often can be overlooked. The result is that women don’t seek help until the disease has begun to spread, making treatment more complex.
The most common ovarian cancer symptoms include:
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
- Back pain
- Urinary urgency
- Nausea or indigestion
- Shortness of breath
- Weight gain
Testing and Screening for Ovarian Cancer
Unlike Pap tests for cervical cancer and mammograms for breast cancer, there is no routine screening test for ovarian cancer. Researchers have discovered new information about how BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations can increase ovarian cancer risk. These are the same genes that are tested to determine the chance of developing breast cancer. Approximately 20 percent of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer have a hereditary tendency to develop the disease. Most of the time, these patients have a genetic mutation of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene.
All women with ovarian cancer are recommended to undergo genetic testing to identify these gene mutations. The information can help determine a woman’s risk of developing other cancers, as well as provide insight into whether other family members can benefit from testing, too. In some cases, siblings and others within the family that also have tested positive for the gene mutation can undergo preventive treatment or additional screenings and surveillance.
Innovations in Ovarian Cancer Treatment
For women who have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, identified gene mutations may also play a part in determining the best treatment therapies. New research is providing guidance on how genes affect the biology of cancer growth, and targeted therapies are being developed to inhibit specific enzymes that contribute to cancers caused by mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2.
“Use of these inhibitors can slow progression of the disease and result in tremendous improvements in survival,” says Dr. Jill Suzanne Whyte, MD, Gynecologic Oncology, Obstetrics and Gynecology at North Shore University Hospital.
Another new approach to ovarian cancer treatment that is showing promise is the development of tumor vaccines that help the immune system recognize cancer cells and attack them as they grow. The man-made antibodies used in the vaccines are similar to those that fight infection.
The Importance of Ongoing Ovarian Cancer Research
“Because ovarian cancer remains the leading cause of gynecological cancer deaths in the United States, the need for ongoing research to discover better ways to identify, treat and prevent the disease is essential,” notes Dr. Whyte. Due to decreased public funding of ovarian cancer research, there has been a substantial reduction in clinical trials over the last several years. Support for research funding is necessary for advancements to continue to be made. For women who are diagnosed, it’s also important to ask about specific clinical trials.
Find out more about ovarian cancer prevention and treatment. At Katz Institute for Women’s Health, we’re here to answer your questions. Call the Katz Institute for Women’s Health Resource Center at 855-850-5494 to speak to a women’s health specialist.