Ovarian Cancer: The Basics
Each year, more than 21,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and the diagnosis can be a scary one. The disease is often thought of as a “silent killer” — by the time it produces noticeable symptoms, the cancer is usually in a more advanced and less treatable stage. As a result, the disease is the fifth most common cause of cancer-related deaths among women.
The key to lowering that number? Early detection. 94% of women whose disease is caught in its early stages are still alive five years later. So get educated. Read on to learn how to spot the warning signs of the disease and what you can do to reduce your risk.
Recognizing the Symptoms
- Abdominal pain, pelvic pressure or bloating
- Difficulty eating, or feeling full very quickly during meals
- Changes to urinary behavior or bowel habits (you may have to use the restroom more often or feel a greater sense of urgency before you do)
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Determining Your Risk: Age
A woman’s age is directly connected to her chances of developing ovarian cancer. Nearly half of the women who are diagnosed with the disease are over the age of 63; the disease is rare in women under 40. Women over the age of 50 are ten times more likely to develop ovarian cancer.
Determining Your Risk: Hormone Therapy
Some studies have shown that taking estrogen after menopause may increase the risk of contracting ovarian cancer; this seems especially true for women who take estrogen without progesterone for at least 5 to 10 years. Doctors are still researching why exactly hormone therapy raises the risk, as well as whether women who take both estrogen and progesterone after menopause are also at an increased risk.
Determining Your Risk: Obesity
A woman’s chances of developing ovarian cancer are strongly connected to her weight. Very overweight or obese women not only have an increased risk of contracting the disease, but also of dying from the disease.
Determining Your Risk: Personal and Family History
Doctors also believe that some women inherit changed or mutated genes that make them more susceptible to developing ovarian cancer. Inheriting changes to the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes (which are known as tumor suppressors) can increase your risk.
Women who have an increased familial risk should talk to their doctor about genetic testing and strategies for prevention.
Because doctors still aren’t sure exactly what causes ovarian cancer, it’s a difficult disease to detect. Pap smears may be the go-to test for detecting cervical cancer, but they aren’t effective in screening for ovarian cancer. And routine pelvic exams often don’t uncover any signs of the disease.
If you’ve undergone the screening tests, or your doctor has a reason to believe you might have ovarian cancer, he or she will probably recommend you see a gynecologic oncologist, an OB/GYN who specializes in dealing with the disease.
According to the American Cancer Society, ovarian cancer patients who are treated by such specialists live longer than those who are not.
Determining Your Diagnosis
X-rays, CT scans or ultrasounds can find potentially cancerous masses and determine whether or not the disease has spread. Your doctor will then perform a biopsy — a surgery to remove any suspicious masses, which will be sent to a lab for diagnosis.
Deciphering the Different Stages
The results of the biopsy, along with the screening tests, will enable your doctor to classify the cancer into one of four stages.
Stage 1: Cancer is contained within one or both ovaries.
Stage 2: Cancer has spread (also called metastasized) to organs within the pelvis.
Stage 3: Cancer has spread outside of the pelvis, usually to the abdomen or lymph nodes.
Stage 4 (most advanced): Cancer has spread to distant organs like the liver or the lungs.
Surgery is the first step in treating ovarian cancer. Surgery is performed to remove as much of the cancer as possible. The extent of the surgery usually depends on the stage of the cancer. If the cancer is advanced, it may be necessary to remove the uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes and surrounding tissues during surgery.
But chemo can also damage healthy cells. So researchers are looking at a new approach called targeted therapy — drugs that kill cancer cells but minimize damage to normal cells. Research is still in the testing phase, and the FDA has not yet approved a targeted therapy drug to treat ovarian cancer.
The subtle symptoms of the disease can make early detection difficult — but not impossible. Make an effort to tune in to your body. If you experience any common symptoms that seem worse than usual or last for a couple of weeks, make your doctor aware of your concerns.
Prevention: Have Children
Having children can reduce a woman’s risk of ovarian cancer, with each pregnancy lowering the risk further. Breastfeeding may also decrease the chances of developing the disease. Both pregnancy and breastfeeding increase the amount of the hormone progesterone in the body. Progesterone helps to shed abnormal cells from the surface of the ovaries.
Fighting Cancer by the Plateful
No single food can reduce your risk of cancer, but the right combination of foods may help make a difference. At mealtimes, strike a balance of at least two-thirds plant-based foods and no more than one-third animal protein. This “New American Plate” is an important cancer fighting tool, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research. Check out better and worse choices for your plate.
Fruits and vegetables are rich in cancer-fighting nutrients — and the more color, the more nutrients they contain. These foods can help lower your risk in a second way, too, when they help you reach and maintain a healthy body weight. Carrying extra pounds increases the risk for multiple cancers, including colon, esophagus, and kidney cancers. Aim for at least five servings a day, prepared in a healthy way.
Folate is an important B vitamin that may help protect against cancers of the colon, rectum, and breast. You can find it in abundance on the breakfast table. Fortified breakfast cereals and whole wheat products are good sources of folate. So are orange juice, melons, and strawberries.
Other good sources of folate are asparagus and eggs. You can also find it in chicken liver, beans, sunflower seeds, and leafy green vegetables like spinach or romaine lettuce. According to the American Cancer Society, the best way to get folate is not from a pill, but by eating enough fruits, vegetables, and enriched grain products.
An occasional Reuben sandwich or hot dog at the ballpark probably isn’t going to hurt you. But cutting back on processed meats like bologna, ham, and hot dogs may help lower your risk of colorectal and stomach cancers. Also, eating meats that have been preserved by smoking or with salt raises your exposure to agents that can potentially cause cancer.
Whether it’s the lycopene — the pigment that gives tomatoes their red color — or something else isn’t clear. But some studies have linked eating tomatoes to reduced risk of several types of cancer, including prostate cancer. Studies also suggest that processed tomato products such as juice, sauce, or paste increase the cancer-fighting potential.
Even though the evidence is still spotty, tea, especially green tea, may be a strong cancer fighter. In laboratory studies, green tea has slowed or prevented the development of cancer in colon, liver, breast, and prostate cells. It also had a similar effect in lung tissue and skin. And in some longer term studies, tea was associated with lower risks for bladder, stomach, and pancreatic cancers.
Grapes and Cancer
Grapes and grape juice, especially purple and red grapes, contain resveratrol. Resveratrol has strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. In laboratory studies, it has prevented the kind of damage that can trigger the cancer process in cells. There is not enough evidence to say that eating grapes or drinking grape juice or wine can prevent or treat cancer.
Cancers of the mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, liver, and breast are all linked with drinking alcohol. Alcohol may also raise the risk for cancer of the colon and rectum. The American Cancer Society says that even the suggested daily limit of two drinks for men and one for women elevates the risk. Women at higher risk for breast cancer may want to talk with a doctor about what amount of alcohol, if any, is safe based on their personal risk factors.
Water not only quenches your thirst, but it may protect you against bladder cancer. The lower risk comes from water diluting concentrations of potential cancer-causing agents in the bladder. Also, drinking more fluids causes you to urinate more frequently. That lessens the amount of time those agents stay in contact with the bladder lining.
Beans are so good for you, it’s no surprise they may help fight cancer, too. They contain several potent phytochemicals that may protect the body’s cells against damage that can lead to cancer. In the lab these substances slowed tumor growth and prevented tumors from releasing substances that damage nearby cells.
Cruciferous vegetables include broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, and kale. These members of the cabbage family make an excellent stir fry and can really liven up a salad. But most importantly, components in these vegetables may help your body defend against cancers such as colon, breast, lung, and cervix.
Dark green leafy vegetables such as mustard greens, lettuce, kale, chicory, spinach, and chard have an abundance of fiber, folate, and carotenoids. These nutrients may help protect against cancer of the mouth, larynx, pancreas, lung, skin, and stomach.
Curcumin is the main ingredient in the Indian spice turmeric and a potential cancer fighter. Lab studies show it can suppress the transformation, proliferation, and invasion of cancerous cells for a wide array of cancers.
How you cook meat can make a difference in how big a cancer risk it poses. Frying, grilling, and broiling meats at very high temperatures causes chemicals to form that may increase cancer risk. Other cooking methods such as stewing, braising, or steaming appear to produce fewer of those chemicals. And when you do stew the meat, remember to add plenty of healthy, protective vegetables.
Strawberries and raspberries have a phytochemical called ellagic acid. This powerful antioxidant may actually fight cancer in several ways at once, including deactivating certain cancer causing substances and slowing the growth of cancer cells.
Blueberries for Health
The potent antioxidants in blueberries may have wide value in supporting our health, starting with cancer. Antioxidants fight cancer by ridding the body of free radicals before they can do their damage to cells. Try topping oatmeal, cold cereal, yogurt, even salad with blueberries to boost your intake of these healthful berries.
Sugar may not cause cancer directly. But it may displace other nutrient-rich foods that help protect against cancer. And it increases calorie counts, which contributes to overweight and obesity. Excess weight can be a cancer risk. Fruit offers a sweet alternative in a vitamin-rich package.
Vitamins may help protect against cancer. But that’s when you get them naturally from food. Both the American Cancer Society and the American Institute for Cancer Research emphasize that getting cancer-fighting nutrients from foods like nuts, fruits, and green leafy vegetables is vastly superior to getting them from supplements. Eating a healthy diet is best.
Ovarian Cancer Infographics: