By: Taylor Wood, MPH – A Philadelphia-based cancer researcher
When I was 11 years old my grandmother had a hard time eating and often experienced bloating in her stomach. At the time, we didn’t think anything of it, except maybe it was because she drank a little too much coffee. When she finally went to the doctor, he was concerned and ran a bunch of tests. The results showed she had ovarian cancer.
Being a curious kid, I did my own research and learned that ovarian cancer is very rare. According to the American Cancer society, a women’s lifetime risk is about 1 in 78, with more than half of ovarian cancer cases being found in women over the age of 63.
Five years later, when I was 16 years old, I began to notice that I was having the worst stomach pain of my life. This went on for several weeks. I was constantly bloated. I needed to wear jeans that were 2 sizes bigger than my usual size. My periods became really painful and I could hardly eat because I felt full shortly after starting to eat.
Because of my grandmother’s experience with ovarian cancer, I knew these could be signs of ovarian cancer. My grandmother talked with her doctor about what I was experiencing. That’s when I learned that ovarian cancer not only occurs in adults, but also young women.
There is a form of ovarian cancer, called germ cell tumors, which are more common in teens and young adult women. According to the National Cancer Institute, germ cell tumors begin in the reproductive cells (the eggs) in the female body. Like all forms of ovarian cancer, these can be difficult to diagnose because most people do not have symptoms, especially in the early stages. These tumors can be identified through gynecologic exams, a type of exam internally performed by a health care provider that involves placing a finger in the vagina to feel the uterus (womb), and ovaries. These exams are usually not painful. A health provider may also suggest an ultrasound or MRI – special radiology tests that take pictures of the uterus and ovaries, instead of doing the exam.
In my case, based on the doctor’s advice, my mother and grandmother took me to see a gynecologist who did a gynecology exam, ultrasound, and bloodwork. Thankfully, all of my tests came back negative for cancer. I am thankful for my mother and grandmother who listened to me and helped me to see a health care provider about my symptoms.
Ovarian cancer in teens is rare – they happen to about 1 in 100,000 young women each year. Other female health conditions like endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and fibroids are more common in younger women and can have similar symptoms to ovarian cancer.
I hope that all families are as open to talking about female health issues as my mother and grandmother were. Families should be sure to talk with teens about symptoms they may be experiencing when they get their period. Some symptoms may want to be checked out by a doctor, while others are a normal part of puberty. You can ask questions like:
- Have your periods changed recently? Are they heavier, lighter, more (or less) painful than usual?
- As your body is changing, do you have any questions or concerns you want to share with me or a health care provider?
- What are you hearing from your friends or others your age that make you feel like what you are going through is normal? What are you hearing that makes you worried that your experiences may not be common?
If you have a history of ovarian cancer, it is even more important to start these conversations early about any pain or discomfort your teen may experience in their pelvic region, during or outside of their period.
Talking with your teen often and early about the importance of regular pelvic exams will also decrease the likelihood that ovarian cancer, or other diagnoses, advance to more serious stages. Arm yourself with the information, resources, and even confidence, needed to have these conversations. Speak with your own health care provider, or gynecologist, about ovarian cancer and understand what resources are available for yourself and your teen, if needed.
For more information on Ovarian Cancer from the National Cancer Institute, click here: https://www.cancer.gov/types/ovarian/patient/ovarian-prevention-pdq
For more general information about young women’s health, click here: