Ovarian cancer still a mystery, especially for black women

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With over 21,000 new cases of ovarian cancer a year – including 15,000 deaths – it ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women. And, while more white women develop ovarian cancer, the five-year survival rate among black women is still lower.

However, much is unknown about the disease, and even less is known about how it affects black women.

Less than 300 black women have ever been included in ovarian cancer studies. But, a new five-year study aims to change that.

“This is a perfect example of a scientific area where there is a paucity of information, and this study is going to help fill that hole,” says Dr. Therese Dolecek of University of Illinois at Chicago, and lead investigator in the study.

Dolecek’s team is investigating the risk factors specifically associated with black women who develop the disease. They aim to enroll 1,000 African American women recently diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The study began last year and is scheduled to end in 2015.

The critical problem with ovarian cancer is that it’s often diagnosed late in the disease, when treatments are not as successful.

Ovarian cancer develops from cells found in the ovaries that become malignant and grow out of control. It is the deadliest form of cancer affecting the female reproductive system.

There are no early screening tests for ovarian cancer, and experts say the symptoms, such as bloating, pelvic pain, an urgent need to urinate, fatigue and an upset stomach, can be vague and mistaken for other conditions. Last September, the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition found that doctors initially misdiagnosed two-thirds of the women surveyed.

The study also revealed that a third of respondents waited more than two months before first consulting a doctor.

Another survey showed that only 15 percent of the women sampled knew the symptoms of ovarian cancer and that awareness among the general population is low.

For that reason, experts urge women with persistent symptoms to be evaluated by their primary doctor or a gynecologist.

The known risk factors for this type of cancer include endometriosis, a family history of ovarian cancer, and increased age. The American Cancer Society adds that obesity and poor diet can increase the risk as well.

“We want to see if the risk factors for African American women are equivalent to those observed in white women,” Dolecek said. “We know there are differences in survival even if you control for predictors, such as tumor stage and patient age.”

Last year, President Obama declared September National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month and pledged his support for increased awareness and scientific research.