Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common type of cancer in American women. This year, the American Cancer Society estimates 25,400 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with the cancer and 14,300 will die from it.
Several factors are associated with an increased risk for developing ovarian cancer. Incidence rises with age, with half of all cases diagnosed after 65. The cancer is more common in women who start menstruating at a young age (before 12), don't have children, have their first child after 30 and go through menopause after 50. (On the other hand, use of oral contraceptives and tubal ligation are associated with a decreased risk for ovarian cancer.) Some other risk factors include: family history of ovarian cancer, personal history of breast cancer and prolonged use of fertility drugs.
Surviving Ovarian Cancer
In early stages, ovarian cancer usually causes no noticeable symptoms. Therefore, only about 10 percent of cases are diagnosed while the cancer is in early stages (still confined to the ovary). About 70 percent of women aren't diagnosed until the cancer has spread to other parts of the body (stage IV). According to the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, the overall five-year survival rate for this stage is only 15 to 20 percent.
Advanced ovarian cancer is most commonly diagnosed in older women. However, it is sometimes found in younger women. In the July issue of the journal, Obstetrics and Gynecology, researchers compared the survival rates of younger and older women with stage III and IV ovarian cancer. Overall, the women had an average five-year survival rate of 23 percent. But when the investigators broke down the results by age, the differences in survival were significant. For women over 45, five-year survival rates averaged 22 percent, with a median survival length of 34 months. But for women 45 and younger, five-year survival rates averaged 48 percent, with a median survival time of 54 months.
Researchers aren't sure why younger women have longer survival rates for advanced ovarian cancer. Younger women tend to be in better health and able to withstand treatment better than older women. In addition, older women may be more likely to have genetic mutations associated with more aggressive tumors.
Currently, there are no specific screening tests for ovarian cancer. However, researchers are investigating several possible tools and methods. In the meantime, doctors say the best way to detect the cancer is through periodic pelvic exams. Women should also report any unusual symptoms to a physician for possible evaluation.