Ovarian cancer has the highest death rate among cancers of the female reproductive system. It is difficult to detect it early because the ovaries are deep within the pelvis and initial symptoms are often unclear. The cancer often may be undiagnosed until after the disease has advanced and spread throughout the abdomen or to distant organs. After the cancer has metastasized, survival rates plummet because the current treatments are largely ineffective in fighting late stage ovarian cancer.
Which age groups are at higher risk?
Occurrence increases with age and it is rarely found in women under the age of 40. Fifty percent of all cases of ovarian cancer involve women aged 63 or older. With the highest recorded rates among women aged 55 to 64.
Survival rates also vary by age group. The highest death rate occurs among women aged 75 to 84. The median age of death due to ovarian cancer is 71.
The risk factors for developing ovarian cancer are:
- Early menstruation, typically before the age of 12, can indicate a somewhat increased risk.
- Menopause in older age. Women who reach menopause after the age of 50 run an increased risk.
- Long-term use of hormone-replacement therapy (although oral contraceptices may decrease the risk)
- Never being pregnant
- Fertility treatment
- Endometriosis or ovary cysts
- Diet rich in saturated fats
- Previous breast cancer
- Family history
- Intrauterine device
It is important to note that PAP test does not diagnose ovarian cancer. It has to be tested with regular pelvic imaging and blood tests.
Decreasing the risk of ovarian cancer
Prevention of ovarian cancer is not possible. There are no tests that can show early stages of ovarian cancer. However, the awareness of women and their doctors that abdominal distension is a frequent early symptom, may indicate that more women can be diagnosed early. Women with a high risk factor should regularly visit the gynecologist. Although there is no strong evidence, women should use the lowest dose of hormone replacement therapy and in short periods after menopause. Other preventive measures are previous pregnancy, history of breast-feeding and daily use of aspirin.