In light of Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, a leading SU2C doctor on the latest research and key warning signs
September marks Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. Due to a lack of detection tests, just about 20 percent of all ovarian cases are found early. And tragically, women diagnosed in later stages can have a survival rate as low as 28 percent. The American Cancer Society expects nearly 14,000 women will die this year from this horrible disease.
Dr. Alan D. D’Andrea, leader of Stand Up To Cancer’s Ovarian Cancer Dream Team, weighs in on the key risk factors for ovarian cancer and why it’s so often diagnosed too late in the game.
Ovarian cancer is usually diagnosed at an advanced stage when it’s hard to treat. Why is this?
While there are great screening options available for detecting other cancers, such as mammograms for breast cancer or colonoscopies for colorectal cancer, there are no comparable screening tests for ovarian cancer. We desperately need a blood test for early diagnosis. The best early indication we have is a family history of ovarian cancer. Through careful genetic testing, we can determine whether a woman is at an increased risk of developing cancer.
What are the key warning signs someone might have Ovarian cancer?
Unfortunately, the key warning signs are non-specific. A woman may have some abdominal swelling or non-specific gastrointestinal symptoms. These symptoms, however, are often confused with more common gastrointestinal problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome.
What are the risk factors and how can people take care of their health to prevent this awful illness?
The greatest risk factor is a family history of ovarian or breast cancer. If a woman knows that she carries an inherited mutation in a BRCA gene or a related gene, her doctor can carefully monitor her health. Additionally, a woman with this inherited mutation may even opt for surgical prevention, which can include removal of the fallopian tubes and ovaries.
Stand Up To Cancer spearheaded the Ovarian Cancer Dream team, the first initiative of its kind in cancer research. What type of progress has the Dream team made in looking at new types of treatments? Have they found anything especially surprising?
A relatively new drug, called a PARP inhibitor, has been used in the treatment of ovarian cancer. PARP inhibitors are oral drugs that are generally well tolerated and combine well with other drugs, such as immunotherapy medications.
Our Dream Team established new clinical trials with PARP inhibitors, which have enhanced the survival of ovarian cancer patients. Although ovarian cancers can become resistant to PARP inhibitors, our team has discovered new ways to enhance the activity of PARP inhibitors and to overcome PARP inhibitor resistance. Our team has also developed methods for culturing ovarian cancer tumor cells from individual patients. These are called organoid cultures. In this way, through personalized or precision medicine, we can test whether novel drugs or drug combinations will be useful for individual patients.
In one 2018 study, researchers found that funding for gynecological cancers does not align with their survival rates. Why might this be true?
Ovarian cancer is complex, and there are few targets in this cancer that can be treated with drugs. We need more support for the basic science of this tumor so we can find its vulnerabilities. Until we can find better therapies to treat ovarian cancer, the only way to improve survival is to invest in cancer research and genetic screening, which helps to identify women who are at risk and in early diagnosis.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This originally appeared on Medium.