Every year, millions of women around the world are diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It is one of the most common forms of cancer in women, and the fifth leading cause of cancer-related death among the gender. Because the early symptoms of ovarian cancer may be vague, and there is still no screening test, nearly 80% of new cases are already in an advanced stage by the time of diagnosis.
As the month of September, proclaimed as Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month by the WHO, brings ovarian cancer into focus, we have a crucial opportunity to honor those who have or have had the disease, spread the word and educate the public so that more and more people are aware of this particular form of cancer that kills about 200 thousand women in the world every year.
Without going too deeply into the biological aspects of ovarian cancer, it is important to know that ovarian cancers were previously believed to begin only in the ovaries, but recent evidence suggests that many ovarian cancers may actually start in the cells in the far (distal) end of the fallopian tubes. This cancer can develop at any time in a female's life, but it is much more common in older women. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), at least 50% of all ovarian cancers are found in women aged 63 years or older. However, new research indicates that age-specific incidence rates rise steadily from around age 15-19 and more steeply from around age 35-39. Other risk factors include obesity and inherited genes, especially the breast cancer gene 1 (BRCA1) and the breast cancer gene 2 (BRCA2), family history and previous diseases. It has also been shown that hormonal therapies, or fertility treatments are also linked to an increased risk of ovarian cancer.
How many women suffer from ovarian cancer? The ACS estimates that in the United States, in 2020, there were over 23,000 diagnoses of ovarian cancer and over 15,000 died from this disease. In the UK, the latest statistic, that (unfortunately) dates back to 2017, suggests that there are almost 8 thousand new cases per year. More generally, around the world, there are nearly 600,000 women living with a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. However, a Globocan study predicts that by 2035 there will be a global increase in incidence rates of 55% and an increase in deaths of 67% (we are talking about 250,000 victims per year).
The Global Cancer Statistics 2020 report, produced as a collaboration between the American Cancer Society (ACS) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), shows that ovarian cancer accounts for approximately 3.4% of all, global female cancers. Only 3.4%, you may be thinking. Yes, ovarian cancer is a rather rare cancer (it affects one in 82 women, compared to one in eight in the case of breast cancer). But it is also one of the deadliest. Researches confirmed that the five-year survival rate from diagnosis is 40% (compared to 87% for women with breast cancer). This happens because ovarian cancer can be very difficult to detect and diagnose. Hence the nickname of the silent killer.
Many of its symptoms are similar to those caused by much less serious problems, such as indigestion and bloating, and there are often no alarm bells that can help the patient discover the disease. Unfortunately, irregular menstruation, difficulty eating, and urinary issues are just a few signs of the later stages of ovarian cancer, when the tumor has spread to the pelvis and the abdomen. Furthermore, there are currently no scientifically reliable screening programs for the early diagnosis of ovarian cancer. Standard gynecological checks (such as pelvic examinations, Pap smears, etc.) are not used for the early identification of this tumor.
This is why prevention is fundamental in the fight against this form of cancer. Don’t get me wrong, there is no way to guarantee that you won’t develop cancer in your ovaries. There is no known way to successfully prevent ovarian cancer. However, improving the prevention and early detection of ovarian carcinomas will be a critical component of reducing morbidity and mortality from ovarian cancer. So what can a woman do in order to reduce the risk of suffering from this condition?
Ovarian cancer is considered "multifactorial," meaning that several processes usually work together to either raise or reduce the risk of it. Some risk factors (such as your age or family history of similar diseases) are not modifiable, but there are other aspects of your life you can change, and making even small changes can sometimes make a large difference in whether or not a person develops cancer.
First of all, like for everything in life, maintaining healthy habits is important. For example, attaining a healthy weight is a good idea irrespective of your level of concern about ovarian cancer; as well as exercising regularly and following a healthy diet. Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, grains, and beans, while maintaining a low intake of fat, red and processed meats, is recommended for the prevention of all cancers. Also smoking has been shown to increase the risk of more than one type of cancer. So if you smoke, quit. It’s also recommended to limit your alcohol consumption to a maximum of three drinks per week. Avoiding tobacco and limiting your alcohol intake, as well as following the above tips to exercise daily and maintain a healthy diet can decrease your risk of contracting diseases.
Research also suggests to avoid talc in personal care products. Talc in feminine dusting sprays and powders is indeed associated with the development of ovarian cancer. While talc isn't the greatest risk factor for ovarian cancer, it is one that is easily avoidable. Carrying a pregnancy to term and breastfeeding also are found to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer. Finally, women who have a history of taking oral contraceptives are studied to have up to a 50% lower risk of developing ovarian cancer. The longer the medication is used, the lower the risk of developing ovarian cancer. However, oral contraceptives are not for everyone, so be sure to consult your GP to see if this is what works best for you.
Written by Miriam Tagini