Understanding ovarian cancer: Symptoms, risk factors and treatment plans

This content is sponsored by MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

Ovarian cancer impacts thousands of women in the United States every year. While ovarian cancer symptoms can be hard to spot, it’s important for women to seek care and speak up if they think something is wrong.

Ovarian cancer ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women, accounting for more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system, according to the American Cancer Society. In 2021, about 21,410 women will receive a new diagnosis of ovarian cancer; about 13,770 women will die from it, the American Cancer Society found.

The sooner ovarian cancer is detected, the sooner it can be treated, said Dr. Ebony Hoskins, a gynecologic oncologist at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

There are some people who may be more likely to receive an ovarian cancer diagnosis, Dr. Hoskins said. Risk factors associated with ovarian cancer include: being older than 60, having a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, having children later in life or never having a full-term pregnancy and taking hormone therapy after menopause.

It all starts with identifying the symptoms, Dr. Hoskins said. The common symptoms include abdominal pain and bloating, a feeling of fullness and trouble with or frequent urination. However, these common symptoms mimic those of other common conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, urinary tract infections, menstrual periods, or even just day-to-day body fluctuations, Dr. Hoskins noted.

Some women experience additional symptoms such as back pain, constipation, gas and indigestion, lack of appetite, nausea and vomiting, and reflux symptoms.

If you experience any of the symptoms for two weeks or longer, it’s time to seek care, Dr. Hoskins said.

“The more in tune you are with your body, the faster you can tell when something is off,” Dr. Hoskins said.

Dr. Hoskins said if symptoms persist, you should make an appointment with your primary care provider or gynecologist. Patients should feel empowered to seek a second opinion if they believe it’s needed.

When providers test for ovarian cancer, they perform a pelvic ultrasound to check the ovaries, fallopian tubes and uterus for any abnormalities.

If the ultrasound detects abnormalities, the doctor might request a CT scan of the abdomen or pelvis for a better view. If cancer is suspected, a patient may be referred to a gynecologic oncologist, Dr. Hoskins said.

If a tumor is detected, a staging procedure is performed to determine if an ovarian tumor is malignant (cancerous). Tissue samples from the ovaries, fallopian tubes and lymph nodes are removed and tested to determine what, if any, stage of cancer to diagnose.

Ovarian cancer has four stages based on how far the cancer has spread. Depending on the stage, doctors may recommend surgically removing one or both ovaries and fallopian tubes. If the cancer is aggressive, a debulking surgery may be recommended, which means the removal of all tissues affected by the cancer as well as both ovaries and fallopian tubes, Dr. Hoskins said.

“Many patients with ovarian cancer also get IV chemotherapy before and/or after surgery, depending on their general health and cancer stage,” Dr. Hoskins said. “New research suggests that having surgery first gives some patients better results by removing cancer cells that may be resistant to chemotherapy.”

After treatment, it’s important that patients comply with doctor’s recommendations for follow-up care to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back, Dr. Hoskins said. Once surgery and chemotherapy are complete, a physical and pelvic exam are recommended every two to four months for two years; every six months for three years; and then once a year.

At MedStar Washington Hospital Center, patients get a personalized treatment plan based on their needs. It can include primary evaluation, surgery and chemotherapy based on a patient’s unique condition, Dr. Hoskins said.

“At MedStar Health, you get all of your care within one system, and often under one roof,” she said.

The medical teams at MedStar Washington Hospital Center educate patients about tests that can help them either rule out or diagnose the condition that might be causing their symptoms, Dr. Hoskins said.

“Our goal is to build a relationship with you and design a personalized care plan to get you back to good health as soon as possible,” Dr. Hoskins said.

Read more in a blog post with Dr. Hoskins on the MedStar Washington Hospital Center website.

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