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Edward Pavlik: September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month; early detection is the key

September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. In the U.S., ovarian cancer causes more deaths than any of the other gynecological cancers. Ovarian cancer too often appears without any symptoms at an advanced stage where the prognosis is very poor; however, when caught early, ovarian cancer is curable with surgery alone.

(Photo by Chinnapong, iStock/Getty Images Plus, via University of Kentucky)

Ovarian cancer risk increases with age. It can be associated with a history of endometriosis, having family members who have had ovarian cancer, a personal diagnosis of breast cancer, Lynch syndrome (HNPCC), an Ashkenazi ancestry or certain predisposing genes. Women who never have had a full-term pregnancy, have had trouble getting pregnant, or delivered their first child after age 35 have increased risks for ovarian cancer. If you are concerned about these factors, speak with your doctor about your risk and if genetic counseling may be appropriate for you.

Symptoms of ovarian cancer are most often associated with advanced disease and include:

• abdominal bloating or swelling, back pain;
• quickly feeling full when eating;
• discomfort in the pelvic area;
• fatigue; and
• changes in bathroom habits.

However, a variety of common conditions can also display these symptoms.

Consequently, it is important to detect ovarian cancer early. The UK Ovarian Cancer Screening Research Program is focused on early detection by screening the general population using transvaginal ultrasonography. This is the same modality used diagnostically when a person has symptoms or when someone is considered at high risk for ovarian cancer. The procedure is painless, takes less than 10 minutes and is free at UK.

You are eligible for free ovarian cancer screening at UK if you are:

• Over the age of 50 (including women who have no symptoms and no personal history of ovarian cancer)

• Over the age are of 25 and have a family history of ovarian cancer or other risk factors

Although there is no known way to absolutely prevent ovarian cancer, there are some things that are associated with lowering the risk of ovarian cancer including:

• multiple pregnancies, especially before age 26;
• breastfeeding;
• oral contraceptive use (protection continues for up to 30 years after discontinuation); and
• surgery that removes the ovaries and fallopian tubes.

Edward Pavlik, M.D., is director of the Ovarian Cancer Screening Research Program at University of Kentucky HealthCare

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