5 Myths About Ovarian Cancer

5 Myths About Ovarian Cancer
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September is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, and in honor of this, I’m sharing with you today some myths about ovarian cancer that we know are simply that - myths, not facts.

1. Ovarian cancer does not have early warning symptoms.

Ovarian cancer has been referred to as a silent killer, because of a belief that women do not develop until very late in the disease course, when the chance of cure is very low.

We know now that ovarian cancer is not a silent killer, and that many women do have symptoms related to their cancer.

The most common symptoms that women with ovarian cancer experience are the following:

  • Bloating
  • Pain in the pelvis or abdomen
  • Feeling full quickly, or difficulty eating
  • Urinary symptoms, such as having to urinate more frequently or urinary urgency

We also know now that even women with early stage ovarian cancer can have these symptoms.

Unfortunately, these symptoms can be pretty nonspecific and may be ignored for some time, either by the patient or by a health care provider.

2. Ovarian cancer can be detected by Pap smear.

A Pap smear is performed during a pelvic examination and involves gently scraping cells from the opening of the cervix. These cells are then examined under a microscope. The Pap smear is an important cancer screening test for women, but it does not detect ovarian cancer.

It detects changes in cells of the cervix, and the test is designed to detect precancerous changes and cervical cancer.

For more information about cervical cancer, click here.

3. Ovarian cancer can be screened for by the CA 125 blood test.

The CA 125 is a blood test that measures a protein that is often elevated in women with ovarian cancer.

This test can be helpful in measuring the response to ovarian cancer treatment. However, the CA 125 alone is not reliable enough to detect ovarian cancer at an early stage, prior to the development of symptoms.

Some types of ovarian cancer, such as mucinous or clear cell types, do not reliably produce the CA 125 protein, so the test may not be elevated in those types of ovarian cancer. Also, the CA 125 may be elevated in conditions other than epithelial ovarian cancer. For example, it may be elevated in benign ovarian tumors, ovarian cysts, endometriosis, fibroid disease, and pregnancy. The CA 125 may also become elevated in non-gynecologic conditions, such as diverticulitis, liver disease, pneumonia, and after recent surgery. For all of these reasons, and more, the CA 125 is not a dependable screening test for ovarian cancer.

For more information about the CA 125 test, click here.

4. I can’t get ovarian cancer because no one in my family had it.

While women with a family history of ovarian cancer are at increased risk for the disease, about 80% of women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer have no family history of the disease.

For women with a first-degree family member (mother, daughter, or sister) with ovarian cancer, there is an approximately three-times higher risk of developing the disease than for women who do not have a family history.

5. I can’t get ovarian cancer because I had a hysterectomy.

A hysterectomy involves surgical removal of the uterus. If only a hysterectomy is performed, then the ovaries still remain – and there is still a risk of developing ovarian cancer.

If a hysterectomy is performed with a bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy (removal of both fallopian tubes and both ovaries), then the risk for ovarian cancer is dramatically reduced, though still not zero. In fact, a risk-reducing salpingo-oophorectomy is sometimes recommended for women who carry a BRCA mutation that places them at much higher risk than the average woman for development of ovarian cancer. 

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