September 20, 2019

Understanding the symptoms and treatment of ovarian cancer

Early detection is key to recovery.

Family history plays a big role in women developing ovarian cancer, as does the inheritance of gene changes.

Ovarian cancer causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system. That’s due in part to the challenge of detecting ovarian cancer at an early stage, when it is still treatable. Most symptoms aren’t detected until the disease has reached an advanced stage, making it harder to diagnose and treat.

According to the American Cancer Society, in 2019, about 22,530 women will receive a new diagnosis of ovarian cancer, and approximately 13,980 women will die from ovarian cancer.

Ovarian cancer symptoms include:

  • Pain in the stomach or pelvis
  • Having trouble eating, or feeling full quickly
  • Frequent bloating
  • Urinary problems, such as an urgent need to urinate or urinating more often than usual

“These symptoms are common even among women who don’t have ovarian cancer,” said Farah M. Brasfield, MD, regional chief of hematology oncology with Kaiser Permanente in Southern California, who practices at the Anaheim Medical Center. “However, if your symptoms are new, and you experience them on a daily basis for 2 to 3 weeks, then it’s wise to see your doctor, as they could be a sign of ovarian cancer.”

Age and family history are the most important factors in determining if you are at risk for ovarian cancer. The disease typically affects women who are postmenopausal. Inherited gene changes can also play a role, Dr. Brasfield noted.

How is ovarian cancer diagnosed?

It’s important to understand your medical history when determining whether you’re at risk for ovarian cancer, and to schedule a medical examination if you have concerns. An annual pap smear test doesn’t detect ovarian cancer — a pelvic and rectal examination or blood test may be necessary.

“Another way to determine if a woman has ovarian cancer is through a biopsy,” Dr. Brasfield said. “That’s when tissue samples are removed and sent to a lab to determine if they contain cancer cells.”

How is ovarian cancer treated?

Treatment of ovarian cancer is mainly done through surgery, when a doctor typically will remove one or both ovaries. Treatment often also includes chemotherapy, which may be given before or after surgery. Other options include targeted therapy, hormone therapy, and immunotherapy.