Advance with MUSC Health

Ovarian Cancer: Yearly Checkup Best Offense Against This Stealth Disease

Advance With MUSC Health
September 20, 2022
Patient and doctor reviewing information on a portable tablet device.

Dr. Tiffany BoydOvarian cancer is an insidious disease – one that sneaks up on women and claims 14,000 lives every year in the United States.

It’s difficult to diagnose because symptoms mimic minor illnesses, such as upset stomach, bloating, frequent urination, and a feeling of fullness after eating small portions. Very rarely do women have abdominal or pelvic pain in early stages, says Dr. Tiffany Boyd, an OBGYN at MUSC Health Florence Medical Center.

“That’s the frustrating part,” Dr. Boyd says. “Symptoms are similar to other minor illnesses, and some women have those every day and are completely fine. Once pain and other symptoms become evident, the disease may be at an advanced stage at diagnosis. Each year, 22,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the U.S.”

Dr. Boyd’s advice to women: “The key is to get your yearly checkup. Don’t skip your visits and be open about your family history and every symptom you’re having. Just because you don’t think it’s a big deal, bring them up anyway and your doctor will use the information to determine what tests are needed. It’s super important to be as transparent as possible because that’s the only way we know how to proceed.”

If caught early enough, ovarian cancer can be treated with surgery or chemotherapy, but the percentage of early detection is low, Dr. Boyd says. According to the American Cancer Society, the 5-year survival rate is about 94 percent; however, only 20% of cancers are caught early.

Traditionally, an ultrasound or a blood test, known as CA-125, has been used to screen women with symptoms and who have a family history of ovarian and/or breast cancer, but neither one has proven effective at reducing the incidence of ovarian cancer, Dr. Boyd says. 0nly about 10 percent of women have a genetic predisposition, such as the BRCA 1 gene, to ovarian cancer, and testing for the BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 gene is not routine.

“We don’t have a true screening modality yet, so that’s why it’s so important to be absolutely open with your doctor about your family history,” she says.

“In the past, women typically received their PAP test for cervical cancer screening at their annual exam. That screening recommendation for women 30 and over at average risk has been changed in a joint effort by the ASCCP and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology to every five years with co-testing for the human papilloma virus. For women aged 21-29, testing every three years is now the standard of care,” Dr. Boyd says.

Still, it’s important for women to see their gynecologist regularly. Getting a PAP smear is just a portion of the well woman exam and should not be the only reason for a visit, she says.

Ovarian cancer is rare in women under 40. Typically, it occurs in women in their mid-50s. Other risk factors include a significant family history of breast or ovarian cancer, such as a first-degree relative (mother or sister) smoking and having children later in life. A diagnosis of endometriosis carries a slightly higher risk.

Factors that lower risk include giving birth before age 25, breastfeeding, taking oral contraceptives, using an IUD, and permanent sterilization.

When Dr. Boyd diagnoses a patient with ovarian cancer, she offers hope and sound advice. “It is never easy to discuss, but it is important that she has all the resources needed. I refer patients to our gynecology oncologists and explain that there are support groups for women diagnosed with certain cancers. We know we’re treating the whole person, and at MUSC Health we have an entire team of experts who will manage her care with grace and empathy.”

Dr. Boyd practices at the MUSC Health Florence Women’s Health Pavilion in Florence and at MUSC Women’s Health in Marion. To make an appointment, call 843-674-5000 (Florence) or 843-431-2740 (Marion).