Ovarian Cancer Risk Increases With Age

September Is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month

A concerned older woman having a discussion with her doctor.

When we think of age-related diseases, we most commonly think of conditions such as arthritis, Alzheimer's disease, macular degeneration or osteoporosis. But the risk of certain cancers also increases as we grow older, and ovarian cancer is one of those. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that 90 percent of women who develop ovarian cancer are older than 40 and half are age 63 or older. Ovarian cancer causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system, and is the fifth-leading cause of all cancer deaths in women.

During September's National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, advocacy groups are working to raise awareness of this disease, which takes the lives of 14,000 women each year. Awareness is especially important because early diagnosis leads to the most effective treatment. Today, oncologists treat ovarian cancer with surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation, and they continue to refine treatments to give patients a longer life.

Know the Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer

Sadly, ovarian cancer often is not diagnosed until a later stage, when it already has progressed to other organs of the abdomen and beyond. In the early stages, it is generally undetectable during a woman's routine pelvic exam, and the Pap test doesn't screen for it. Early on, there are rarely any noticeable symptoms, or if a woman does notice symptoms, they often are mistaken for some other gynecological or digestive complaint. The CDC advises women to pay attention to their bodies so they will be more likely to notice something that is not normal for them. Symptoms to be alert for include:

  • Unusual vaginal bleeding or discharge.
  • Pain in the pelvic or abdominal area.
  • Back pain.
  • Abdominal bloating or swelling.
  • Feeling full quickly when eating.
  • Frequent, sometimes urgent, urination.
  • A change in bowel habits, such as constipation or diarrhea.

The CDC recommends that if any of these symptoms persist for two weeks or longer, they should be reported to the doctor. Abnormal vaginal bleeding should be reported right away. The doctor may order an ultrasound or special blood tests to rule out or confirm the disease.

Know the Risk Factors for Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer can strike any woman whose ovaries and fallopian tubes have not been removed; in addition, certain factors raise the risk:

  • A personal history of breast, uterine or colorectal cancer.
  • A family history of ovarian, breast, uterine or colorectal cancer. Certain inherited genetic mutations (such as in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes) increase the risk significantly.
  • Being middle-aged or older.
  • A history of endometriosis.
  • Use of estrogen-only hormone replacement therapy.
  • Use of fertility drugs.
  • Never having given birth, or having one's first child after age 35.

None of these risk factors mean that a woman will get ovarian cancer. But women should talk to their healthcare provider about the risk.

Reducing the Risk of Ovarian Cancer

The National Cancer Institute says that lifestyle changes, such as a healthy diet, exercise, maintaining a healthy weight and not smoking, may lower the risk. Women with a family history of ovarian, breast or colon cancer should report this to their healthcare provider. A small number of women have genetic mutations that significantly increase the risk; genetic testing can show whether a woman has these mutations. In some cases, these women and their healthcare team decide that surgical removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes is the best way to lower the risk. (Much media attention was paid to this issue recently when actress Angelina Jolie publicized that she had made the decision to undergo this surgery.) The National Cancer Institute offers more information about genetic testing.

The following organizations offer more information about the diagnosis, treatment and risk factors for ovarian cancer:

Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month logo

The information in this article is not meant to replace the advice of your doctor. Talk to your healthcare provider about cancer screenings, your risk of cancer, and any symptoms that concern you.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.