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Diagnoses of ovarian cancer have been steadily declining over the past 30 years and in 2021 the rate was 27% lower than the rate in 1948. Ovarian cancer is now number 10 in the list of new cancer cases in Canadian women, according to the Canadian Cancer Society’s Canadian Cancer Statistics 2021.
However, ovarian cancer can be challenging to detect and diagnose because many of its symptoms are similar to those caused by less serious problems.
Women’s reproductive glands, the ovaries, are about the size of an almond and located in the abdomen above the pelvis – one on each side of the uterus. They produce eggs and the female hormones estrogen and progesterone.
It’s often difficult to diagnose ovarian cancer in its early stages, because symptoms associated with ovarian cancer are often vague and non-specific, and can be experienced by women without ovarian cancer. The most common symptoms include:
If you experience these symptoms daily, for more than a few weeks, it’s important to discuss them with your health care practitioner.
Other symptoms could include persistent indigestion, gas, or nausea; unexplained changes in bowel habits, including diarrhea or constipation; loss of appetite; unexplained weight loss or gain; low back pain and dyspareunia (painful sexual intercourse).
After discussing your symptoms with you, your doctor may request blood tests or medical imaging to investigate the cause for your symptoms.
When imaging is requested, it’s often used to determine if a mass is present in the ovaries. It could include a pelvic ultrasound, and possibly a transvaginal ultrasound in which a narrow probe is inserted into the vagina. MRI or CT imaging may also be ordered for a more detailed look at an indeterminate or complex mass.
If a mass is found, a surgical biopsy would be needed in order to confirm cancer, as well as the type and stage of cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, the most important risk factor for ovarian cancer other than age is a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer. A strong family history means one or more first-degree relatives (parent, sibling, or child) with a history of ovarian cancer or breast cancer.
Women who have certain inherited mutations (e.g., BRCA1 or BRCA2 or those related to Lynch syndrome) are at increased risk. If it’s determined you have this combination of risk factors, you may be referred for genetic counseling and evaluation.
Other known risk factors include a personal history of breast cancer, endometriosis, or pelvic inflammatory disease, never having delivered a child, using estrogen alone as postmenopausal hormone therapy, and tall adult height. Lifestyle factors, such as smoking and obesity, may also be associated with increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.
On the other hand, pregnancy and long-term use of oral contraceptives can help reduce the risk of developing ovarian cancer.
Please note, that a risk factor is something that increases the risk of developing cancer, but most cancers are the result of many risk factors. Cancer can also develop in people without risk factors, so it’s important to speak to your health care practitioner about any concerns.
Mayfair Diagnostics offers ultrasound services at 12 locations in Calgary, one in Cochrane and one in Regina. Mayfair Diagnostics offers MRI and CT imaging as private pay services at our Mayfair Place location in Calgary, and MRI as both public and private pay exams at our Regina and Saskatoon locations in Saskatchewan. For more information, please visit our services page or call our toll-free number 1-866-611-2665.
American Cancer Society (2022) “Cancer Facts and Figures 2022.” www.cancer.org. Accessed August 15, 2022.
Canadian Cancer Society (2021) “Canadian Cancer Statistics 2021.” www.cancer.ca. Accessed August 15, 2022.
Mayo Clinic Staff (2021) “Ovarian cancer.” www.mayoclinic.org. Accessed August 15, 2022.
Ovarian Cancer Canada (2020) “Disease Basics.” www.ovariancanada.org. Accessed August 15, 2022.
Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance (2022) “Ovarian Cancer Risk Factors.” www.ocrahope.org. Accessed August 15, 2022.