The United Kingdom is presently celebrating Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, and does so every March, while the United States observes this initiative throughout September. Both observances are to support ovarian cancer patients, provide education on, and raise awareness of, the signs and symptoms of this potentially fatal disease.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ovarian cancer is the second most common gynecologic cancer in the United States and causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system.
Though it seems we hear far more about breast cancer awareness, breast cancer philanthropic initiatives and breast health education all year; and not just during the month of October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Why? Obviously, the Pink Ribbon gets a huge amount of unconditional love and product marketability. But why is there not more focus on the Teal Ribbon and what it stands for, which is the symbol used for both ovarian and cervical cancer awareness?
I am not trying to competitively compare ribbons, as both educational focuses are important, but it has always been interesting to me as to why there is so much commercial focus on breast cancer, when breast cancer can also be a precursor to subsequent female cancer diagnoses, and vice versa. The reason? The American Cancer Society (ACS) says reproductive risk factors for ovarian cancer can also affect breast cancer risk.
As a health/medical journalist, a breast cancer survivor who invented a patented product for breast cancer patients, and someone who also works in the breast cancer support space, I profoundly believe all female cancer education opportunities and initiatives should be in the forefront, similar to breast health.
As an example, we are consistently educated on, and reminded to do, self-breast exams to monitor breast tissue changes and to undergo our annual mammogram. But what are we educated on when it comes to gynecological health, besides a reminder of the annual, or semi-annual, Pap smear?
Of course, gynecologic testing is much more complicated than performing a self-breast exam. And, unlike mammograms, there is no absolute pinpoint screening to test for certain gynecological anomalies, such as ovarian cancer. Thus, the awareness of gynecological cancer risks and symptoms is vitally important.
According to Dr. John Bomalaski, a gynecologic oncologist with Florida-based Health First Cancer Institute, “There is no way to make someone a zero risk of female gynecological cancers, but if we look at the scenario in terms of risk reduction, there are several steps which can be taken.”
We know approximately 20% of ovarian cancers are genetically related or hereditary. “To be specific, one out of five ovarian cancers are hereditary, with 75% from the BRCA gene (which is related to multiple cancers), and a very strong relationship between breast and ovarian cancer,” added Bomalaski.
For women who have BRCA mutations, there are prophylactic surgical options available to help decrease cancer risks (oophorectomies and mastectomies can fall into this proactive option). Experts also state environmental adjustments can help decrease the risk of ovarian cancer by controlling weight, diet, and of course exercise. Women taking birth control pills, and who have experienced full-term pregnancies and breast fed, also are considered to have a decreased risk.
On the other hand, the ACS states ovarian cancer risk increases with age, especially in women 63 and older. Along with those never having a full-term pregnancy, those who took hormone therapy after menopause, and utilized fertility treatments, gives that population a greater risk.
Sadly, one of the most dominant reasons ovarian cancers can become deadly is the disease is rarely diagnosed in the initial stages, thus symptoms are often unnoticeable, and therefore, undetected.
So, what are some of the signs and symptoms to watch for?
“We previously called ovarian cancer the silent cancer, but it is not. Most patients have some sort of symptoms which present comparable to abdominal pain, cramping, pressure, GI issues such as bloating and constipation,” Bomalaski said. Other symptoms can include a distended abdomen, weight loss, fatigue, menstrual changes, urinary issues, and even back pain.
Like all cancers, the stages of ovarian cancer are summed up as stage one, two, three and four. Like many cancers, the survival rate is dramatically affected by the stage at which discovered. “Stage one has overall about a 90% survival rate, whereas stage four goes down to 20%,” Bomalski said. Unfortunately, 75% of most ovarian cancers are found at stage three or stage four.
So, whatever your age, whatever your health condition, and whenever you see that Pink Ribbon or hear those words, “Don’t forget your annual mammogram,” let that be a reminder to not forget about your gynecological health. Speak with your medical provider and ask proactive questions in relation to the above risk factors, signs, or symptoms, and above all, stay on top of those female diagnostic testing appointments as recommended.
Finally, I applaud the CDC’s “Inside Knowledge” campaign to raise awareness of the five primary types of gynecologic cancers (cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal and vulvar), in relation to breast cancer and other related risk factors. This campaign is a comprehensive and educational initiative to encourage women to pay extra attention to their bodies and better recognize warning signs when it comes to gynecological health. To learn more, click here.