This year alone, 22,000 American women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Unfortunately, the majority of these women will have advanced stage ovarian cancer, making it the fifth leading cause of cancer death. Given the poor prognosis often given to patients with advanced cancer, it is important for women to recognize early signs and symptoms and to consult a physician as soon as possible.
Know the Early Signs
Ovarian cancer is often called a “silent killer” as many of the early signs are vague or completely absent. Among the earliest signs of ovarian cancer are abdominal pain or discomfort and abdominal bloating. While most often these symptoms will be due to digestive dysfunction or disturbance, if your bloating persists or has not been addressed with basic medical care, you may want to ask your doctor about getting a pelvic ultrasound.
Symptoms tend to worsen as the cancer progresses, and may include greater abdominal distention and increasing waist circumference, nausea, sense of early satiety or loss of appetite, and urinary urgency. Your radar of suspicion should be greater if all of these symptoms are present, but not all need be present in ovarian cancer. The most important take home is to talk to your doctor about any persisting symptoms, particularly of the lower abdomen, so that you and your doctor can rule out other, more common, diagnoses quickly.
Know Your Risk Factors
While ovarian cancer may manifest in any woman, some individuals should be extra attuned to the early signs that may indicate a growing ovarian tumor. The most serious risk factor is being a carrier of the BRCA gene mutation. Most recently in the new media after actress Angelina Jolie’s decision to get a bilateral mastectomy because of her BRCA status, the BRCA gene mutation confers not only an increased risk of breast cancer but of ovarian cancer as well. Those who carry the mutation have up to a 45% lifetime probability of developing ovarian cancer, on top of the elevated risk of developing breast cancer. Individuals with Lynch syndrome, a genetic predisposition to cancer, particularly of the colon, are also at a much greater risk than the general population for developing ovarian cancer. If you have a strong family history of colon cancer, consider talking to your physician about genetic testing for Lynch syndrome.
Other women who are at greater risk of developing ovarian cancer include individuals with a family history of ovarian cancer (even in the absence of known genetic mutations), previous infertility, endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, obesity, and a history of cigarette smoking. In addition, the risk of ovarian cancer increases with age for all women with the average age of diagnosis at 63.
Surprisingly, several things are known to decrease the risk of developing ovarian cancer. These include past use of oral contraceptives, previous pregnancies, past breast-feeding and tubal ligation.
What To Do After Diagnosis?
Likely, after an ovarian cancer diagnosis, you will be ushered through treatment very quickly. While the first months may feel like a whirlwind and you are most certainly still adjusting to your diagnosis, there are a few things you can do immediately to take back control.
- Locate a good gynecologic oncologist specializing in ovarian cancer surgery – Surgical removal of the tumor(s) is the mainstay of ovarian cancer treatment. The experience of your surgeon in both gynecologic cancers and ovarian cancer surgery is extraordinarily important. Studies have shown consistent increased survival in individuals who had their surgery performed by experienced gynecologic oncologists. Don’t be afraid to ask how many ovarian cancer surgeries your oncologist performs in a year and what their overall clinical outcomes are. You can find a gynecologic oncologist in your area at the Foundation for Women’s Cancer.
- Locate a naturopathic physician (preferably a Fellow of the American Board of Naturopathic Oncologists, or FABNO designation) – Treatment will likely be very hard on your body. Surgery alone can have a profound impact on your quality of life. Most women will also go through a series of chemotherapy treatments as well, with different drugs causing a variety of different side effects. Naturopathic physicians with experience working with cancer patients can help you use diet and lifestyle as well as specific herbal and nutrient supplements to quicken healing from surgery, prevent chemo side effects, increase effectiveness of chemo, and help you feeling your best throughout treatment. You can find a naturopathic physician with a special interest or focus on cancer at the Oncology Association of Naturopathic Physicians website.
- Get Connected – It is important to remember that you are not alone as you move through treatment. Get involved with your hospitals support groups. Many hospitals now offer additional classes for cancer patients including yoga, art, gardening and spiritual support. There are many online opportunities to connect as well. The Fourth Angel Program is a free, national service that links cancer patients with cancer survivors to provide one-to-one supportive relationships (via phone or email). The Cancer Support Community is an international non-profit dedicated to providing support, education and hope to people affected by cancer. Their toll-free Cancer Support Helpline (888-793-9355) is staffed by counselors trained in helping you get connected to local resources as well as provide short-term cancer counseling and emotional support.
- Stay Involved – Research has shown that individuals who remain well connected in their community tend to have better outcomes and fewer side effects than individuals who become socially isolated during their cancer treatment. Now is a great time to reconnect with your spiritual community or church group, engage with a book club or knitting circle, or participate in your community in whatever way enriches you.
- Laugh – It may seem difficult, but laugh as much as possible. The ability of humor and laughter to optimize health and well-being is not a new idea. Indeed, Proverbs 17:22 states that “A merry heart doeth good as medicine but a broken spirit drieth the bones.” In addition to the rush of natural opiates released, which can decreasing pain levels, laughter also increases natural killer cell activity, immune cells that can hunt down and kill tumor cells. Watch funny movies, go to a comedy show with friends, or visit a local laughter yoga class.
By: Malea MacOdrum, NCNM Naturopathic Medicine Program and Classical Chinese Medicine Program
Edited by Dr Elise Schroeder