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Ovarian cancer is one of the most deadly and common forms of gynaecologic cancers.
More than 3,100 people are diagnosed with the condition each year in Canada, and the numbers are only rising. As the symptoms are connected with a plethora of other health conditions, it can be difficult to diagnose and treat.
And as September is ovarian cancer awareness month, there's no better time to learn the symptoms and risks of the disease.
"This is a great push for women to become familiar with the condition and to reach out to their gynecologist or doctor with any concerns," Cheryl Bloch, a retired gynecologist and cancer researcher tells Yahoo Canada. "It truly could save your life."
Read on to learn more about ovarian cancer, its warning signs, and how you can help prevent the disease.
Function of the ovaries
According to the Canadian Cancer Society, "the ovaries are the organs in a woman's reproductive system that produce eggs (ova). There are two of them, and they are deep in a woman's pelvis, on both sides of the uterus (womb), close to the ends of the fallopian tubes."
Overall, the ovaries have two jobs: to make female sex hormones (estrogen and progesterone) and to produce mature eggs.
Once a month during ovulation, an ovary releases an egg which travels down a fallopian tube to the uterus. If fertilized by a sperm, it will develop into a fetus. If unfertilized, it will shed from the body during menstruation.
Ovarian cancer symptoms
It is possible that ovarian cancer may not produce any signs or symptoms in its early stages, but appear as the tumour grows and changes the body.
When symptoms appear, they are most commonly abnormal bleeding from the vagina (especially after menopause), a lump in the pelvis or abdomen, fatigue, constipation, changes to digestion, swelling of the abdomen, weight loss or difficulty breathing.
"Typically, I also see symptoms of bloating, difficulty eating and urinary problems, but that doesn't necessarily mean you have cancer if you're experiencing these symptoms," Bloch says. "If you have these signs, speak to your doctor who can properly assess you."
Who is at risk for ovarian cancer?
While the underlying causes of ovarian cancer are not well understood, there are many factors that can increase a woman's risk of developing the condition.
According to Ovarian Cancer Canada (OCC), the risk increases as a person ages. As we get older, cells become damaged making it easier for cancer to develop. The disease is most common between the ages of 50 to 79.
OCC also reveals that genetic mutations can increase your risk, which occurs "when a gene is altered and stops working as it should, such as BRCA gene mutations."
Bloch add that ethnicity can come into play.
"Some genetic factors that cause cancer cells to grow are among certain ethnic groups like those who are French-Canadian or Jewish," she explains. "Also, family history definitely is a factor as there's a greater risk if someone in your family has ovarian cancer, or even breast, prostate or pancreatic cancer on either side of your family."
Can you prevent ovarian cancer?
"Some risk factors, like aging or your family history, you can't do anything to prevent. But you can lower the risk of this cancer by staying at a healthy weight, or refraining from hormone therapy as that can cause your genes to mutate," suggests Bloch.
There is also research that suggests using oral contraceptives can decrease your risk of developing ovarian cancer, as well as metformin, a type two diabetes medication that helps to halt scarring ovaries.
How women can be proactive about their reproductive health
Despite the fact that everyone with ovaries is prone to developing ovarian cancer, OCC recommends that you speak with a doctor about your concerns to see how they might be able to help you.
Gynecologic surgery is always an option, such as a hysterectomy (removal of the uterus), tubal ligation (getting tubes tied), or by undergoing an opportunistic salpingectomy (removal of the fallopian tubes).
"Surgery may be one option for you, but remember that this would prevent you from having children in the future. If you suspect you might have one of these operations or want to ease your mind, women can always freeze their eggs to use at a later date with a surrogate," Bloch says.