Newswise — New Brunswick, N.J. - September 14, 2018 - Ovarian cancer is a rare but lethal cancer affecting approximately 22,000 women in the United States every year, and taking 14,000 lives, according to the American Cancer Society. Symptoms of ovarian cancer can be subtle and non-specific, pointing to a wide range of possible conditions - simple or serious.  Often women see many physicians before the diagnosis is made, and unfortunately 80 percent of ovarian cancers are diagnosed at an advanced stage with disease already spread around the abdomen. 

Age is the most significant risk factor in developing ovarian cancer. About 90 percent of women who get ovarian cancer are older than 40, with the greatest number of ovarian cancers occurring in women aged 60 years or older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  But each cancer also has its own unique risk factors, which could include genetic predisposition, family history, and gynecologic history.

Traditional treatments for ovarian cancer include a combination of surgery and chemotherapy, but even with aggressive regimens, the recurrence risk for most cases is high, and only half of women with ovarian cancer will be alive five years after diagnosis, according to the National Cancer Institute.  However, each woman’s ovarian cancer diagnosis is as distinct as the person it affects and outcomes are based on stage and type of cancer and other genetic influences.

New advances in molecular sequencing, genetic testing and drug development have led to the approval of many new “targeted” therapies for ovarian cancer by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.  By targeting specific molecules that are responsible for the growth, progression and spread of cancer, targeted therapy differs from standard chemotherapy, which attacks the disease systemically and, therefore, also damages healthy cells. Because targeted therapy specifically seeks out cancer cells, it is designed to reduce the harm to healthy cells.  Most of these therapeutics are still investigational as it is an evolving field, but they provide improved therapeutic options in a setting where none existed before.

What can you do?

Know if you have a family history of gynecologic cancer – or any cancer – and share that knowledge with your doctor. The genetic information may directly impact your treatment and isn’t just important for family members; it may provide risk reduction strategies such as surgery or medication and also identify your risk of getting other cancers.

It is also important to recognize symptoms and follow up as soon as possible with a gynecologist or specialist.  At Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, the state’s only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, such specialty care is offered by the gynecologic oncologists in our program.      

Talk to your doctor if you have concerning symptoms or a family history of ovarian cancer and request appropriate referrals and testing. It may save your life.

Ruth Stephenson, DO, FACOG, is a gynecologic oncologist at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey and an assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.