Your Ovarian Cancer Plan
As an OB/GYN, ovarian cancer is one of the most difficult gynecologic cancers that I encounter. It comes with few symptoms early on, and once it has progressed, the chances of reoccurrence and survival are grim. Rather than dwell on the negative, I like to point out the positive and proactive ways we can fight ovarian cancer together every day. In observance of Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month, I am sharing a plan you can use to challenge ovarian cancer.
- Know your risk. The causes of ovarian cancer are still largely unknown. But we do know that those with a family history of breast cancer or ovarian cancer are more likely to get ovarian cancer. Increased age, obesity, and using estrogen after menopause increase your risk. Your reproductive history and some behaviors, like smoking, can also increase risk.
- Mitigate those risk factors you can. I know you’ve heard it a million times, but it is so important. If you smoke, try to quit. Eat a healthy diet and get some exercise every day. Both these actions will help maintain a healthy weight, which is beneficial in preventing all sorts of medical issues, including ovarian cancer. Breastfeeding and using a hormonal birth control method also help bring down the risk for ovarian cancer.
- Keep an annual appointment with your OB/GYN or midwife. When you are in your reproductive providers’ office, we conduct a thorough pelvic exam. We are looking for irregularities that relate to all sorts of conditions, including ovarian cancer. Use our skills to catch this cancer early, when it is most treatable.
- Know the symptoms. This one is tricky. The major symptoms of ovarian cancer—and other cysts, masses, or tumors in your pelvic area—are pretty common and often associated with less serious conditions. The major ones to look for are bloating, pain in your pelvis or belly, trouble eating or feeling that you are full sooner than normal, and more frequent or more urgent need to urinate. Lesser symptoms of ovarian cancer include tiring easily, pain during sex, back pain, upset stomach or heartburn, constipation, swelling in your belly, unexplained weight changes (like losing weight without trying or bloating that seems like weight gain), and unusual vaginal discharge or bleeding, especially after menopause.
- Listen closely to your body. If the symptoms you are experiencing are related to a less serious condition, they will come and go. They can be helped by making small changes to your diet, exercise, or sleep patterns or by taking a laxative. Begin to pay attention if symptoms are new to you, if they occur frequently (more than 12 times in a month), if they last more than a few weeks, or if they continue to get worse. That’s when you call your reproductive healthcare provider for an appointment.
Sadly, we can’t completely wipe out any chance of getting ovarian cancer. But we can make a plan and work together to decrease the impact of this diagnosis on our lives.
Kimberley Sampson, MD, is an OB/GYN at SVMC OB/GYN. The practice is part of Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington.