Advances in ovarian cancer treatment saves lives
Great progress has been made in the “battle” against ovarian cancer. Five-year survival rates have improved from 12-15 percent to 60-65 percent, and thanks to advances in treatment, ovarian cancer has been transformed from an “acutely lethal” disease to a chronic disease with many long-term survivors. As importantly, side effects and complications have decreased during treatment of this disease.
This success stems primarily from the diligent work of gynecologic oncologists, who have developed new innovations in care. Gynecologic oncologists are the only physicians who receive specific subspecialty training combining the important aspects in diagnosis, performing the optimal surgical procedure and chemotherapy selection of ovarian cancer.
It is important to understand that there are no screening tests for ovarian cancer, however contrary to popular thoughts, the disease is not silent.
The nonspecific abdominal symptoms often present with more common diseases, such as GERD, irritable bowel syndrome and diverticulitis. In fact, as many as 89 percent of women with early stage ovarian cancers demonstrate recurring abdominal complaints.
Women who have recurring or increasing symptoms (more than six times a month) should have their physician consider evaluation for ovarian cancer. This will entail a pelvic examination and likely a pelvic ultrasound and blood test. Unfortunately, the disease is most frequently diagnosed at a late stage.
Today, many procedures are completed with laparoscopy (minimally invasive surgery) lessening complications and hastening recovery. Additionally, after optimal surgery (resulting in minimal residual disease) many women can have part of their chemotherapy instilled directly into the abdomen with excellent results and dramatically improved survival rates. Importantly, some women are best suited to be managed with chemotherapy before surgery, which allows the disease to shrink. Subsequent surgery is typically less extensive and often performed laparoscopically.
There are also new drugs that have proven effective for women with recurrent disease, as well as women who have the BRCA gene, which increases the risk of both ovarian cancer and breast cancer.
Historically, more women died from ovarian cancer than all other gynecologic cancers combined. However, when treated by the correct multidisciplinary team headed by a gynecologic oncologist that understands all aspects of the disease process, there is hope and promise for a cure.
When symptoms do eventually present, they are vague and often mistaken for diverticulitis (inflamed or infected pouches that form in the wall of the colon). Symptoms of ovarian cancer can include:
- bloating, pressure or pain in the abdomen
- irritable bowel syndrome
- vaginal bleeding
- frequent urination
If you experience any of these symptoms and they increase in frequency or intensity, it’s important to see your doctor for a pelvic exam. Appropriate imaging is also necessary to rule out or diagnose ovarian cancer.