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Health Information Early Detection Difficult for Ovarian Cancer

It's the fifth most common cancer among women, and more than 14,000 Americans are expected to die from it this year alone.

But ovarian cancer remains an elusive disease that offers little in the way of warning signs, making it difficult to detect early. The five-year survival rate is about 40 percent.

"It's a serious problem," says Jacob Rotmensch, MD, medical director of the Gynecologic Cancer Center at Rush. "The reason is that we don't understand a lot of what the cause of it is, and we pick it up in advanced stages most of the time."

The most common symptoms are bloating and pelvic pressure, but Rotmensch notes that they often present themselves when the cancer is at an advanced stage.

"Mostly early stage cancer is picked up incidentally – we'll be operating on something else, for example," he says.

Screening by ultrasound or a blood test for the CA 125 tumor marker may detect ovarian cancer, but it's no guarantee.

"Many times the lab values can be normal, the ultrasound can be normal, and there can advanced-stage ovarian cancer," Rotmensch says. "But it's still the best we have."

In younger patients, using a birth control pill has been shown to decrease the risk of ovarian cancer, Rotmensch says.

There are some risk factors associated with ovarian cancer, including a family history of ovarian cancer -- meaning a woman with a mother, daughter or sister who has ovarian cancer has a higher risk of the disease. A personal history of another form of cancer also may increase one's risk.

Rotmensch recommends yearly physical exams for most women, and more frequent exams for higher-risk patients.

Meanwhile, Rotmensch says researchers have made some progress in developing new treatments and screening techniques. But it remains slow.

"Nothing's been good enough yet," he says.

According to the National Institutes of Health, ovarian cancer symptoms can include:
 

  • Heavy feeling in pelvis
  • Pain in lower abdomen
  • Bleeding from the vagina
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Abnormal periods
  • Unexplained back pain that gets worse
  • Gas, nausea, vomiting, or loss of appetite

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Please note: All physicians featured in Discover Rush Online are on the medical faculty of Rush University Medical Center. Some of the physicians featured are in private practice and, as independent practitioners, are not agents or employees of Rush University Medical Center.

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