5 Myths about Ovarian Cancer

Gynecologic surgeon Dennis Chi

MSK gynecologic surgeon Dennis Chi says symptoms for ovarian cancer are nonspecific, which is a big reason why the disease is usually diagnosed at an advanced stage.

Ovarian cancer is considered a rare disease. About 22,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with it in 2019, according to the American Cancer Society. There are many misconceptions about this disease, says Dennis Chi, Deputy Chief of the Gynecology Service and Head of Ovarian Cancer Surgery at Memorial Sloan Kettering. Here, he debunks some common myths that he has heard.

Myth 1: There are no risk factors for ovarian cancer.

Family history is the biggest risk factor for ovarian cancer, says Dr. Chi; however, people with a family history of the disease make up only 10 to 15 percent of those diagnosed. It is important to maintain a healthy weight through diet and exercise to reduce the risk of several other cancers and many other health problems, but unfortunately, those behaviors have no bearing on ovarian cancer risk.

Myth 2: A cyst is always cause for concern.

That’s not exactly right. The majority of ovarian cysts are not cancerous. “Sometimes sonograms in young women will show abnormalities on the ovary, but this is a normal process. You form a cyst on your ovary every month; it ruptures and releases an egg into the fallopian tube,” Dr. Chi says. After menopause, this process stops. A cyst on a 60-year-old woman’s ovary is more worrisome than one in a 30-year-old woman, according to Dr. Chi. “No matter what, ovarian cysts should be monitored, and women should seek a second opinion if they’re worried,” he says.

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Myth 3: Ovarian cancer has specific symptoms.

There is no one particular sign or symptom of early-stage ovarian cancer. The disease causes a fallopian tube or ovary to enlarge, according to Dr. Chi, which a woman won’t feel unless it twists and causes pain, or spreads and creates cancerous fluid in the belly. This fluid causes women to gain weight in their belly, even if they’re dieting and exercising. Ovarian cancer can also cause vague gastrointestinal symptoms, such as frequent bowel movements, constipation, or pelvic pressure. “It’s so nonspecific,” he points out. “Everyone experiences those things sometimes.”

Myth 4: Pap smears check for ovarian cancer.

A Pap smear is not a test for ovarian cancer. “Pap smears detect only cervical cancer, not all gynecologic cancers,” says Dr. Chi. “In fact, there is no test that detects ovarian cancer in its earliest stages.” Two-thirds to three-quarters of women are diagnosed at a later stage, when the disease has spread to nearby tissues and organs.

Myth 5: Advanced ovarian cancer is not treatable.

Many women with advanced ovarian cancer who have been treated at MSK live much longer than five years, says Dr. Chi. “This is because of our amazing team: our surgeons, medical oncologists, pathologists, radiation oncologists, and nurses,” he adds. “We’re improving every aspect of care: how we diagnose the disease, how we do surgery, how we give chemotherapy and targeted therapies, like PARP inhibitors, and more.”