What is ovarian cancer?
Ovarian cancer is cancer of the ovaries. It originates in the ovaries, fallopian tubes, or sometimes in your abdominal lining, called the peritoneum.
Who gets ovarian cancer?
It affects individuals who have an ovary(ies): including females, intersex, some transgender individuals, and anyone who has ovarian anatomy.
Where are your ovaries?
The ovaries are in the very lower part of the abdominal cavity, one on each the right and left sides. They are about the size of a grape and sit next to the uterus at the ends of each of two fallopian tubes. A normally functioning ovary, prior to menopause, has many different functions, but it is mainly focused on producing eggs and releasing two hormones: estrogen and progesterone.
OVARIAN CANCER AWARENESS MONTH
Unfortunately ovarian cancer is dangerous, because it is rarely caught in the early stages, only about 15% of the time. Typically this type of cancer will spread to the pelvis and abdomen prior to detection. September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month and awareness is the biggest tool we have for early detection. Educating yourself, becoming aware of the symptoms, and advocating for yourself are the tools you need.
O VARIAN CANCER SIGNS & SYMPTOMS:
- Abnormal bleeding or discharge from vagina
- Pelvic pain or pressure
- Feeling full quickly or trouble eating
- Upset stomach or heartburn
- Urge incontinence
- Abdominal bloating or swelling, with unexplained weight loss
- Back pain
- Pain during sex
WHEN TO SEEK CARE
Seek a provider’s help if you notice any of the above symptoms, AND they:
- Are NEW onset
- Persist for more than 2 weeks
- Do not resolve with normal interventions (rest, exercises/stretching, over the counter medication, etc)
OVARIAN CANCER SCREENING
Here is where it gets confusing. The screening for ovarian cancer is a bit more muddled than your annual pap smear. There is actually NO CONSISTENTLY-RELIABLE screening test to detect ovarian cancer. According to the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, if you think you may have ovarian cancer, or are in a high risk group, these tests should be available to you:
1. Age 18-35 mandatory annual vaginal exam.
2. Age 35+ should have an annual rectovaginal exam. Provider inserts fingers into rectum and vagina simultaneously to detect abnormal swelling or tenderness.
If you have an abnormal pelvic examination result and/or you are at high risk for ovarian cancer, then the next step is an internal ultrasound performed with a small wand-like instrument that is placed within the vaginal canal.
If you have an abnormal pelvic examination and/or you are at high risk for ovarian cancer, there is a blood test which examines your level of CA-125, a protein produced by ovarian cancer cells.
IMPORTANT! Some non-cancerous diseases of the ovaries can also increase CA-125 levels, while some ovarian cancers may not produce enough CA-125 levels to cause a positive test. Your provider may not utilize this test as a screening option due to the unpredictable nature of the protein levels.
The only way however to accurately confirm ovarian cancer is with a biopsy of the tumor. The biopsy is then examined under a microscope.
HOW TO GET A CLEAR DIAGNOSIS
Find a gynecological oncologist, a provider who is specifically trained to treat cancers of the reproductive system. They will review your positive test results, and may also perform a CT scan. If they determine so, this is the provider who would perform the next step, a tumor biopsy.
Based on all your tests, scans, and biopsies the gynecological oncologist will craft a treatment plan, likely consisting of surgery and/or chemotherapy. It is important to feel confident with your treatment path.
Your treatment path will be determined by the stage of cancer that you have. Staging is a way of determining if and how far a cancer may have spread. The American Cancer Society lists the 4 stages of ovarian cancer with a fantastic and detailed chart breakdown.
YOUR CANCER TEAM
Many cancer survivors have an amazing team of super supportive providers, handing out tons of tips based on clinical experiences. However, they often miss some of the pelvic nuances and relief treatments that a PT would recommend, such as…
Whether you undergo surgery, chemotherapy, or both, each has unique trials, tribulations, and challenges. You do not have to walk through it alone, build your dream team!
Whether you or a loved one are currently walking this journey, or you are the healthiest horse out there, with knowledge comes power, and I hope you have found useful information here that you can use, or share, and be prepared.