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Ovarian cancer often has no symptoms

It has been called a silent killer.

According to the American Cancer Society, ovarian cancer accounts for about 3 percent of women’s cancers, but it causes more deaths than any other female reproductive cancer.

September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. The ACS estimates that in the United States in 2016 about 22,280 women will receive a new diagnosis of ovarian cancer and about 14,240 women will die from ovarian cancer.

David Griffin, a gynecologic oncologist with Bon Secours St. Francis Health System, said ovarian cancer is typically a post-reproductive age disease –— usually 50s and older — but it can happen in much younger women. He said women with a family history of ovarian or breast cancer in their mother, aunt or sister should be particularly aware of the symptoms and discuss their family history with their doctor.

Ovarian cancer is particularly deadly because it is often without symptoms until the later stages of the disease.

“It is usually diagnosed with a more advanced stage – usually stage 3,” Griffin said. “If it’s earlier than that, it’s usually an incidental finding.”

Symptoms, when noted, are often not very specific. Women may complain of persistent abdominal pain, bloating or changes in bowel habits.

“Unfortunately, there are no particular symptoms for early diagnosis,” Griffin said. “The higher the stage, the less likely it can be cured. Typically, no matter the stage, it’s surgery, then chemo. ”

But if younger women have a family history, that can be significant. When women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, they should be tested for genetic predisposition.

“If the mother is positive, the daughter should be tested,” Griffin said.

If the mother is negative, Griffin said the daughter is not at higher risk. Standard procedure now is to test patients with a family history of ovarian cancer.

“In my practice, it’s probably close to 100 percent (for testing),” Griffin said.

Pap testing, which screens for cervical cancer, is not an effective screening for ovarian cancer. Griffin said there is no effective early screening for the average patient. He recommends patients follow their doctor’s recommendations for screening for cervical, breast and colon cancers, however, since those can be detected early.

According to the American Cancer Society, a women’s risk of developing ovarian cancer increases with age and obesity. Other factors may contribute as well, including a reduced risk for women who carried a pregnancy to term before age 26, a reduced risk for women who breast-feed, use oral contraceptives or have certain gynecologic surgeries, and a higher risk for women with infertility and those who use certain infertility drugs.

Research into effective early screening techniques and additional cancer treatments continues.

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