Combined, it is estimated that cancer will take the lives of more than 50,000 American women in 2010. This year they also will challenge more than 225,000 women in the United States to a fight for their life, threatening families of every race, age and socio-economic status.  

But breast cancer and ovarian cancer don’t have to be a death sentence. In fact, caught early and treated aggressively, survival rates for both cancers are better than many other forms of the disease.

Are You at Risk?

Outside of skin cancers, breast cancer is the most common form of cancer among American women. While ovarian cancer is not nearly as common, it shares some of the same risk factors, such as:

• Personal history of breast or ovarian cancer

• Not having children

• Not breast feeding

• Poor diet/obesity

• Use of alcohol 

Age also is a big factor.

“As with any type of cancer, as you get older, you have an increased risk of these diseases,” says Leigh Nordstrom, MD, internal medicine physician on the medical staff of Baylor Medical Center at Waxahachie.

However, one of the strongest predictors of both breast and ovarian cancer is family history.

Women who inherit a mutated BRCA gene are at a substantially greater risk of developing one or both of these cancers.

In fact, women with a mutated BRCA gene have up to an 80 percent chance of getting breast cancer and up to a 40 percent chance of getting ovarian cancer at some point during their life. 

“Women with a significant family history of breast or ovarian cancer are typically referred to a genetic counselor to be screened for the mutated BRCA gene,” says Valerie Gorman, MD, general surgeon and breast surgeon on the medical staff of Baylor Waxahachie. “If diagnosed with the gene, preventative double mastectomy is commonly recommended along with removal of the ovaries.”

Lowering the Odds

To mitigate some risk for breast and ovarian cancer, women should maintain a healthy weight, not smoke, moderate use of alcohol and find out their family history of cancer.

Talk to your doctor about screening options if cancer – especially breast and ovarian cancer – runs in your family.   

“There are other things that can help prevent these types of cancer,” says Dr. Nordstrom. “However, you should always discuss them with your doctor, since some measures – such as starting birth control – carry with

them their own risks.” 

Diagnosing the Disease

Women must be their own first line of defense against breast and ovarian cancer not only by living a healthy lifestyle, but by being vigilant to changes in their bodies.

The American Cancer Society recommends that women begin self-breast exams at age 20. During a self-breast exam, women should feel for an abnormal mass and look for nipple discharge, changes in the texture of the skin, reddening of the skin and swelling.

“It’s an easy thing to do once a month, and if you make it a habit, it can make a world of difference in saving your life,” says Dr. Gorman. “There are breast cancers that don’t show up on mammograms, and the only way they are found is through self-breast exam.”

Dr. Gorman believes that women over 40 should get an annual screening mammogram in accordance with guidelines set by the American Cancer Society and backed by several other prestigious medical organizations.    

A Difficult Catch

“The bad thing about ovarian cancer is that we don’t have a very good screening test, and you don’t generally have a lot of signs or symptoms,” explains Dr. Nordstrom. “A lot of women think when they get their Pap smear they are getting screened for all cancers affecting the reproductive organs. And while the Pap smear is a very good test, it is specific to the cervix.”

Bloating, nausea, change in bowel movements, decreased urination, backaches and changes in the menstrual cycle, are all possible symptoms of ovarian cancer.

Dr. Nordstrom acknowledges though that these are all very vague symptoms since most women experience all of them at some point during their life.

“However,” she says, “if these symptoms are something out of the ordinary for you and if they persist, it’s time to go to the doctor.”

Dr. Gorman echoes that advice when it comes to breast cancer and any other health concern a woman may have during her lifetime. “If something is different, go to your doctor and find out. You’d rather it be something simple, but if it is something serious like breast cancer, the sooner it’s found, the better.”

Taking Out a Tumor

Surgery and chemotherapy are generally the cornerstones of any breast or ovarian cancer treatment plan.

However, in recent years, an exciting new type of radiation therapy – partial breast radiation – has been saving women with early stage breast cancer weeks of treatment and sparing breast tissue.

“A catheter is inserted into the area of the breast where we removed the tumor,” explains Dr. Gorman. “Then, a radiation oncologist delivers radiation seeds through the catheter and radiates just that area rather than the whole breast. It’s five days of radiation rather than eight weeks, and it has great cosmetic as well as medical results.”

Physicians are members of the medical staff at one of Baylor Health Care System’s subsidiary, community or affiliated medical centers and are neither employees nor agents of those medical centers, Baylor Medical Center at Waxahachie or Baylor Health Care System.