Audra Moran, president & CEO of the world’s largest ovarian cancer charity, shares critical information with women about the No. 1 cause of gynecologic cancer deaths.
President and CEO, Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance
There is no early detection test for ovarian cancer. That fact alone can come as a surprise to women, many of whom receive yearly medical exams that include a pap smear. But the pap smear is used to detect cervical cancer; ovarian cancer can only truly be diagnosed through surgery.
Ovarian cancer is considered a rare cancer — 1 in 78 women will develop it in her lifetime and 19,880 new cases will be diagnosed in the United States this year. The good news is that this number is down from 22,000, where it had been for many years prior. The bad news: ovarian cancer remains the No. 1 cause of gynecologic cancer deaths, with a five-year survival rate of only 48%.
The symptoms of ovarian cancer — bloating, difficulty eating, frequent urination, and pelvic or abdominal pain — are easily confused with other, less serious conditions, and often don’t show up until the cancer has progressed. Only 15% of cases are diagnosed in early stages.
Know your family history
There is, however, something that everyone can do — and should do — and that is to know one’s family history. Those whose family members have or had ovarian, breast, or colon cancer have a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer themselves. This is because of known (and, quite possibly, still unknown) genetic mutations that are inherited. Fortunately, many of these mutations can be discovered through a simple blood test.
The most well-known of these genetic mutations are BRCA1 and BRCA2. Everyone has BRCA genes (which derive their name from BReast CAncer gene), and these two genes produce a tumor-suppressor protein that works to fix damaged DNA. In other words, the BRCA genes fix some of the mistakes that the cells may make in our bodies — mistakes that can cause cancer. When there is a mutation on one of these two genes, however, some of the mistakes our cells may make cannot get repaired. Women with a BRCA mutation have up to a 60% lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer. Another known mutation is Lynch Syndrome, and those who have a change in one of these genes have a 9-12% lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer. The lifetime risk among the general population (those without an inherited mutation) is 1.3%.
It is important to note that while ovarian cancer affects women, and those born with ovaries, the genetic mutations that lead to a much higher risk for the disease can be inherited and passed down by men, as well. This means that fathers can pass along these mutations to their daughters and sons.
Taking action to prevent ovarian cancer
Those who have determined through genetic counseling and testing to be of higher risk, due to family history or inherited mutations, can greatly reduce their risk of developing ovarian cancer by removing their ovaries and fallopian tubes. This process is called prophylactic bilateral salpingo oophorectomy. Chris Evert, the tennis star, recently discovered that she had ovarian cancer by undergoing this procedure. She had no symptoms but chose to remove her ovaries due to her family history and a recently discovered genetic mutation. During the surgery, doctors found that she had stage one ovarian cancer.
Of course, there are risks with any kind of surgery, so women are advised to speak with their doctors about the appropriateness of this procedure.
Reducing the risk of ovarian cancer
In addition to a family history of certain cancers, as well as genetic mutations, advanced age and being post-menopausal can increase a woman’s risk for developing ovarian cancer. That’s not to say that a young woman cannot be diagnosed with the disease, but ovarian cancer rates are highest in women aged 55-64 years.
On the flip side, there are ways to reduce one’s risk of the disease, though it is important to note that these are not preventative measures. Pregnancy and breastfeeding have been shown to be linked to a reduction in risk. Likewise, the use of oral contraceptives also decreases the risk of developing ovarian cancer, especially when used for several years. In fact, women who use oral contraceptives for five or more years have about a 50% lower risk of developing ovarian cancer compared to those who have never used birth control pills.
Fighting the disease from all fronts
Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance (OCRA) is the world’s largest ovarian cancer charity and has invested $110 million into scientific research that explores the biology and etiology of ovarian cancer, better treatments, and, ultimately, a cure. The organization has provided nearly 350 grants to researchers at 79 institutions. At the same time, OCRA advocates for patients, engaging with legislators to ensure that federal funding, relevant policies, and access to high-quality care are protected on Capitol Hill. And OCRA’s patient support programs help people navigate an overwhelming diagnosis, supporting patients and families when and where they need it most.
Learn more about ovarian cancer and OCRA’s work at ocrahope.org.