You're a grown women who takes charge of her sexual health and sees her gyno regularly, but you may still be forgetting one crucial part of the picture: your ovaries. We get it--they're out of sight and out of mind, right? But did you know that ovarian cancer is the deadliest gynecological disease and that there's no real early screening tool available?
It's estimated that about 20,000 women will develop ovarian cancer in 2014 and that 14,000 will die from the disease this year, according to the American Cancer Society. While the average woman's lifetime risk is about 1.5 percent, this risk is much higher in women with a BRCA mutation, said Dr. Deborah Lindner, chief medical officer for Bright Pink (brightpink.org/) and clinical instructor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Northwestern University.
But the scariest part is that ovarian cancer isn't something that you're being screened for on a regular basis, so it's up to you to know the signs and symptoms of this deadly disease. As of now, the only routine way your doctor keeps an eye on your ovaries is through a pelvic exam (yet some doctors may stop performing them on all women soon).
"This is when the physician feels inside to feel the ovaries and if there's a mass or nodule," Lindner said. "That's not a great test either, but it's pretty much the only test we have to check someone in the office. That's part of why ovarian self-awareness is so important."
Spotting Ovarian Cancer
So what should you be on the lookout for?
"If somebody notices bloating or a feeling that their abdomen is increasing in size--and not just because you had too much to eat over the weekend--a progressive increase in abdnominal size," Lindner said.
Other signs are feeling full too quickly after eating and changes in bowel or bladder habits (like a difficulty or urgency urinating or change in the size of the stool).
While these are all a little vague, the key is noticing if any of these symptoms persist for at least 2-3 weeks or progressively get worse. If that's the case, head to your doctor. Of course, many of these symptoms may seem like gastrointestinal issues, which is another reason it can be so hard to spot ovarian cancer. That's why Lindner suggests simply asking your doctor "Could it be my ovaries?" Especially if you have a family history. In this case, your doctor may order a transvaginal ultrasound, where a small probe is inserted in your vagina to take a better look at your ovaries and see if there are any problems.
Reducing Your Risk
The first step in assessing your risk in knowing your family history of breast and ovarian cancer--both of which can make you more likely to develop the disease. If these are on your family tree, Lindner suggests genetic counseling and genetic testing to determine if you carry genetic mutations on BRCA1 or BRCA2, which would greatly increase your risk of ovarian cancer.
"The earlier you talk about it, the sooner you can make decisions, do preventative things, and be proactive about your health," Lindner said. (Read about why Lindsay Avner, CEO of Bright Pink, plans to remove her ovaries.)
If you don't have a family history, there are still things you can do to protect yourself. For starters, just being on birth control for five years cuts your risk of ovarian cancer in half, says Lindner, and staying on it longer can reduce the risk even more. You can also think about what comes after The Pill. "People who have children younger and have breastfed babies have a lower risk of ovarian cancer," says Lindner. And most importantly, know your "normal" with the help of this guide from Bright Pink, so that you can tell your gyno if anything seems out of the ordinary with your ovaries.