This year, and every year, about 200,000 women worldwide will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer. An estimated 22,280 of them will be from the US alone, and more than 14,000 will die. Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cause of cancer-related death in women.
Despite its fatality, women between 18 and 24 years old are reluctant to seek medical attention for gynecological issues because they don’t want to be deemed “abnormal,” and are too embarrassed to discuss sexual health according to a study.
Katherine Taylor, acting chief executive at Ovarian Cancer Action, the British charity that commissioned the study, said the apprehension has potentially major, even fatal, implications, as one in five cases of ovarian cancer are in women under 50.
“Younger women could be at danger of not getting the medical help that they need because they have reservations about seeking help from healthcare professionals,” she said.
Ovarian Cancer Action found that just 17 percent of young women would seek medical help if they’d exhibited symptoms of any gynecological issues, compared to 68 percent of older women. In fact, 57 percent of younger women were turning to Google instead.
Out of 1,000 women surveyed, women in the 18 to 24 age group were four times less likely to go to a doctor about a sexual health issue than women aged between 55 and 64.
Likewise, two-thirds of young women said they are too embarrassed to say the word “vagina” or “orgasm” to their doctors. More than half were self-conscious about using the word “discharge” and 60 percent didn’t want to say “labia.” A quarter of young women avoided their doctors because they didn’t even know what words to use, and another 44 percent did so because they were simply reluctant to discuss sexual health issues. Almost half didn’t want to be intimately examined.
“I think there are a lot of factors that feed into it, whether it’s social ones or confidentiality—although that should never be an issue—or complications,” Taylor said. “We have quite an interesting society. We have a very sexualized vision of women, appetizing in the media, but actually the flip side to that coin is the embarrassment, and we shy away from talking about quite natural and normal health issues.”
And with a 90 percent survival rate at early detection, having conversations with women about ovarian cancer’s symptoms is a top priority.
“It’s so important for early diagnosis—not just for ovarian cancer but for other cancers, as well,” Taylor explained. “If you can catch it early, your survival chances are much better.”
But more than a third of young women in the study were unable to identify a symptom of ovarian cancer, and only 11 percent said knowing their family history would encourage them to seek advice—even though 20 percent of ovarian cancers are linked to genetic predisposition, according to the report.
Worse, early ovarian cancer usually has no obvious symptoms, though studies have indicated that some women experience persistent, nonspecific symptoms, such as bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly, or urinary urgency or frequency.
“Women who experience such symptoms daily for more than a few weeks should seek prompt medical evaluation,” said Charaighn Sesock, director of media relations at The American Cancer Society, which helps nearly one million people touched by cancer each year with getting rides to treatment, navigating the healthcare system and dealing with the side effects of treatments. “The most common sign of ovarian cancer is swelling of the abdomen, which is caused by the accumulation of fluid. Abnormal vaginal bleeding is rarely a symptom of ovarian cancer, though it is a symptom of cervical and uterine cancers.”
The largest risk factor is a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer, including pelvic inflammatory disease and Lynch syndrome. Women who have had breast cancer or who have tested positive for inherited mutations in BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes are at increased risk, Sesock said.
“The use of estrogen alone as menopausal hormone therapy has been shown to increase risk in several large studies. Tobacco smoking increases the risk of mucinous ovarian cancer. Heavier body weight may be associated with increased risk of ovarian cancer,” Sesock explained.
If a woman is showing symptoms, Taylor advised to visit a medical professional and ask for a CA125 blood test, which tests levels of protein in the blood. If it’s above a certain threshold, she explained, then the patient should ask for further testing. That test provides early indication as to whether or not there might be an issue.
Other major advances in the field could come from researchers from the combination of blood tests with ultrasound scans, which scientists believe could reduce the death rate by 20 percent.
Fortunately, the statistics are much better than they were even a generation ago, according to the results of a study published by Dr. Jason Wright, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Of the nearly 50,000 women who were diagnosed with ovarian cancer between 1975 and 2011, women diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2006 were about 50 percent less likely to die from the disease than women diagnosed in 1975. The survival rate improved for women in all stages of ovarian cancer from 1975 to 2011.