1 in 78 women will get ovarian cancer during her lifetime. For Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, we are giving you six important facts about ovarian cancer to help you understand your risk, the warning signs and how to prevent it.

1. Ovarian cancer does not always start in your ovaries

Most ovarian cancer cases start in the cells that line your fallopian tubes, ovaries and other organs. When these cells multiply uncontrollably, they often reach your ovaries and form cancerous tumors.

2. Getting older is a major risk factor for ovarian cancer

About half of the women diagnosed with ovarian cancer are 63 years old or older. “Another factor that increases your risk is having a family history of ovarian, breast or colorectal cancer,” said Arshad Sheikh, MD, an gynecologist with Adventist HealthCare Adventist Medical Group.

3. Getting pregnant and taking birth control pills can lower your risk

Women who have experienced a full-term pregnancy during their peak childbearing years and women who take birth control pills tend to be at lower risk. Studies also indicate that breastfeeding may lower your risk as well.

4. Early stage ovarian cancer usually does not produce many symptoms

Unfortunately, most women do not experience symptoms in the early stages of ovarian cancer. Women often begin to feel discomfort after the cancer has already spread. Therefore, it is important to see your doctor if you feel any unusual symptoms. “Symptoms caused by ovarian cancer are generally more persistent and occur more frequently than what is considered normal for your body,” Dr. Sheikh says.

Here are the most common symptoms women with ovarian cancer experience:

  • Bloating
  • Pelvic or belly pain
  • Trouble eating
  • Urinary urgency
  • Upset stomach
  • Fatigue
  • Pain during sex
  • Irregular periods

5. Vaginal screenings and blood tests can help your doctor spot abnormalities

One of the best ways to catch ovarian cancer early is to get your recommended screenings. Here are a few screening methods your doctor may use to detect ovarian abnormalities early:

  • Pelvic Exam: During your annual physical or well-woman exam, your doctor will perform a pelvic exam to feel for cancer tumors and other abnormalities.  “I recommend that women who are 18 years old and older have a pelvic exam every year,” said Dr. Sheikh. “Also, women who are 35 years old and older should have a rectovaginal exam every year.”
  • Transvaginal Ultrasound: If your pelvic exam is abnormal, your doctor may request that you have a transvaginal ultrasound to scan for tumors and other abnormalities.
  • CA-125 Blood Test: High levels of the CA-125 protein can sometimes indicate ovarian diseases, including cancer.

6. Ovarian cancer cases are diagnosed with a biopsy

If screenings suggest you may have ovarian cancer, you will need a biopsy to confirm a diagnosis. “During a biopsy procedure, your doctor will remove a small piece of the abnormality to determine whether you have cancer,” said Dr. Sheikh. “If you have cancer, you will be referred to a gynecological specialist for treatment.”

Ovarian cancer is most treatable when caught early. Always talk with your physician about any unusual symptoms and to get your recommended screenings.

Sources: American Cancer Society, Centers for Disease Control, National Institutes of Health, National Ovarian Cancer Coalition

Need help finding a doctor? Adventist Medical Group offers Primary and Specialty Care at over 10 locations.