Among many other designations, September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. Ovarian cancer doesn’t get much attention or money for research, and its teal ribbon is rarely seen. Its survival rate has increased very little since the 1970s, and there are few ovarian cancer activists because most don’t survive long enough to bring about change.

Because 80 percent of cases are not diagnosed early enough, one in two women diagnosed with ovarian cancer will die within five years. Ovarian cancer shouldn’t be a death sentence for women. It shouldn’t bear the designation author Marsha Gessen gives it of “breast cancer’s poor neglected cousin.” Knowing the risk factors and warning signs of ovarian cancer is vital to changing its sad statistics.

What You Need to Know

Ovarian cancer affects 20,000 American women a year. It develops in the ovaries, most often in the tissue covering the ovaries of postmenopausal women.

Its cause is unknown and any woman is at risk for it, although older women are much more likely to get ovarian cancer than younger. No screening exists to test all women for ovarian cancer, and the Pap test screens for cervical cancer only, not ovarian. This cancer is the deadliest of all female reproductive cancers, and is the fifth most common cancer among women. 

Risk Factors

Although no one knows what causes ovarian cancer, we do know some risk factors. Some women seem to have a genetic predisposition for developing the disease, especially ones with certain gene mutations present in their DNA.

Nine out of 10 women who get ovarian cancer are 40 or older, with most deaths from ovarian cancer occurring in women 55 or older. Women who have had breast cancer have an increased risk for ovarian cancer as well as women with a family history of ovarian or breast cancer. Women who take estrogen (not progestin also) for more than five years are more likely than others to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Certain things also lower the risk of ovarian cancer. Women who take birth control pills have a much lower risk for it – up to 60 percent less according to some studies. The risk also lowers the earlier in life a woman delivers a child and the more children she has.


Ovarian cancer’s symptoms are often mistaken for something else, and therefore the cancer has often spread to other areas in the body by the time it is discovered. It is important to see a doctor if any of the following abnormalities are experienced regularly over the course of several weeks and cannot be contributed to another cause.

Ovarian cancer needn’t be the silent killer, as it is commonly called. Reliable tests to screen for early stage ovarian cancer do not currently exist, but researchers continue to look for them. Ovarian cancer’s motto, an acronym for teal, promotes hope and a promise to continue fighting this disease: Take Early Action and Live.

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