Getting Proactive About Ovarian Cancer

While ovarian cancer has historically been known as the silent killer, that notion has been overturned — most women with ovarian cancer do in fact have symptoms. However, these symptoms are not ovarian-specific, e.g. abdominal pain, bloating and difficulty eating. One should be aware of worrisome symptoms that are progressive and persistent.

With over 20,000 cases of ovarian cancer diagnosed annually in the United States, women should be aware and proactive regarding their health. Symptom awareness is of paramount importance, as well as staying up to date on routine health screening. These measures have demonstrated to be positively impactful for women.

Joshua P. Kesterson, M.D., Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center

Genetic testing is revolutionizing the prevention and treatment of the cancers that most often affect women, especially breast and ovarian cancers.

Certain genetic tests can help women understand their risk of getting breast or ovarian cancer as they consider preventive treatment options. A woman may also choose to share her test results with her daughters and other family members so that they can consider the implications on their own risk. Other molecular tests can unlock more effective treatment options for breast and ovarian cancer patients. 

These medical breakthroughs are a result of an increased understanding of the disease-related genes BRCA1/2 and HER2.

Guiding prevention

BRCA1 and BRCA2 are genes that can help predict the risk of getting breast or ovarian cancer and can therefore inform preventive strategies that are employed before disease is diagnosed. Women with certain BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene variations have up to a 65 percent lifetime chance of developing breast cancer, compared to a 12 percent chance among the general female population. These women also have up to a 39 percent chance of developing ovarian cancer, compared to a 1.3 percent chance among the general female population.

By combining information about these molecular markers with an individual’s medical history, circumstances and values, patients and their doctors can work together to create personalized prevention plans.

Guiding treatment

For breast cancer patients, measuring for the over-expression of the human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) protein can determine whether a patient will respond favorably to novel drugs that specifically target this growth-promoting protein. In patients who over-express the molecule, adding a targeted therapy can help fight the disease and significantly reduce the risk of recurrence. 

Molecular diagnostic tests for HER2 are used to identify the patients who will benefit from receiving these drugs, thereby allowing breast cancer patients to employ this treatment strategy immediately. This is a remarkable improvement over the traditional trial-and-error process for selecting a therapy.