Newsflash: Your pap smear doesn’t check for ovarian cancer! Here’s what to do to be proactive


By pH health care professionals

September is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. In the U.S. this year, an estimated 22,280 women will receive an ovarian cancer diagnosis, and 14,240 women will die of it, according to the American Cancer Society. It is the fifth leading cause of cancer death among women.

Part of the issue is that ovarian cancer is often diagnosed too late. Survival rates are high when the cancer is caught early. If detected at its earliest stage, the five-year survival rate is more than 93%. But, its symptoms are easy to miss -- things like bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly, and increased urinary urgency or frequency.

It doesn’t help that there isn’t a reliable screening tool yet. In fact, though there are several options on the market that claim to screen for and detect ovarian cancer, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently warned that these tests are not reliable and should not be used.

"Despite extensive research and published studies, there are currently no screening tests for ovarian cancer that are sensitive enough to reliably screen for ovarian cancer without a high number of inaccurate results," the FDA said. The tests may lead to delays in preventive treatments for high-risk women with no symptoms, the agency added, or result in unnecessary medical tests/surgery for those without the disease.

Some women may believe that their Pap tests check for ovarian cancer. However, this is not the case. The Pap test screens for cervical cancer, not ovarian cancer, the Centers for Disease Control says.

For now, paying attention to symptoms and risk factors is key.

"Currently, it appears that the best way to detect ovarian cancer is for both the patient and her clinician to have a high index of suspicion of the diagnosis in symptomatic women," said Dr. Thomas Gellhaus, president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, in a statement agreeing with the FDA.

So what are some ovarian cancer risk factors to know about?

Research suggests that the number of menstrual cycles in a woman’s lifetime may play a factor in her overall risk for developing ovarian cancer. Such risk factors, according to the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, include:

  • Starting menstruation before age 12.

  • Not giving birth to any children.

  • Having your first child after age 30.

  • Experiencing menopause after age 50.

  • Never taking oral contraceptives.

You risk also may increase with age. Ovarian cancer is rare in women under 40, the American Cancer Society says. Most of the time, ovarian cancer develops after menopause.

Your family history and genetics may also play a significant role in your ovarian cancer risk. It is estimated that 39 percent of women who inherit the BRCA1 mutation, and 11-17 percent of women who inherit BRCA2 will develop ovarian cancer by age 70, according to the National Cancer Institute. These genetic mutations also increase your risk for breast cancer.

If you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancers, you may want to get tested and see if you carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes.  Women who test positive sometimes remove their ovaries and fallopian tubes as a precaution. It is something you would need to discuss with your doctor. A patient advocate can also help you understand all of your options.  If you are in the Los Angeles area, feel free to stop by one of our locations.

If ovarian cancer is suspected, a diagnosis would be confirmed with a procedure called a biopsy, where a sample of the tumor is taken to be looked at under a microscope.

Be proactive

Now that you know the symptoms and risk factors, share this information with a mother, daughter, sister or friend. Consider wearing teal, the official ovarian cancer awareness color, during the month of September, and contributing to ovarian cancer research. Talk to your doctor about any risk factors you may have for ovarian cancer and any unusual symptoms you are experiencing. Lastly, if you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, consider the BRCA test.

Be proactive, so you can Enjoy Your Healthy Life!

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. To learn more about the pH Health Care Team, click here.