National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month

September is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. Britt Erickson, MD, an Assistant Professor with the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s Health (OBGYN) covered the topic.

Ovarian cancer is a disease process that originates from either the surface of the ovary, fallopian tube or the lining of the abdominal cavity. Cells become abnormal and then multiply, forming tumors that ultimately spread to other parts of the abdomen.

Certain groups of women are at higher risk of developing ovarian cancer, including those with a strong family history of ovarian cancer or with a genetic mutation (such as a BRCA mutation) in their DNA that predisposes them. For women with a known genetic mutation, prophylactic surgery — removing the tubes and ovaries — is recommended and should be discussed with their doctor. 

Symptoms of ovarian cancer include bloating, abdominal distention and feeling full. Unfortunately, there is no screening test for ovarian cancer. It is not usually discovered through a pelvic exam or Pap smear, which is why most women with ovarian cancer have more advanced (stage 3 or 4) disease. It can be detected by imaging (either ultrasound, CT scan or MRI) and confirmed with a biopsy or surgery. 

Once diagnosed with ovarian cancer, most patients receive a combination of chemotherapy and surgery. The goal of treatment is for women to go into remission and become cancer-free. This happens more than 50% of the time, but ovarian cancer recurrence rates are high, meaning many women do ultimately die from it.

Erickson noted, “The University of Minnesota has many clinical trials open for women at various stages of their cancer treatment. The goal of these trials is to determine if new therapies are better than existing treatments. For example, we have a trial open examining the effects of immunotherapy, specifically Natural Killer cells, in women with recurrent ovarian cancer.”

Clinicians and researchers are using blood samples and Pap smears to evaluate for proteins that may be more common in women with ovarian cancer, hoping to one day develop a screening test. The Medical School will continue to conduct research and train medical students, residents and gynecologic oncology fellows to learn more about how to take care of women with ovarian cancer.