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10 Common Myths About Ovarian Cancer You Need to Ignore

Knowing the truth about this scary cancer can help you protect yourself.

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Myth: Talcum powder or cosmetics cause ovarian cancer

You may have heard about the lawsuits alleging that products containing the mineral talc, like some feminine hygiene powders and mineral cosmetics, cause ovarian cancer. But don’t get drawn into the hype, says Steve Vasilev, MD, medical director of integrative gynecologic oncology at Providence Saint John’s Health Center and a professor at the John Wayne Cancer Institute. “This current scare is based on observational and case studies alone,” he explains. “There really isn’t any good science showing that talc causes ovarian cancer.” So while we wait for better research to be done, it’s fine to steer clear of talc products if it makes you feel better but there’s no need to give up your favorite face powder yet if you don’t want to. Here are some more things you think cause cancer, but actually don’t.

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Myth: If you have a family history of ovarian cancer then you’re doomed to get it

Much is made of a woman’s family history of breast and ovarian cancers—so much so that some women with a strong family history may feel it’s just their destiny to get it, so there isn’t any point in trying to prevent it. But, Dr. Vasilev says, heredity only accounts for a mere 10 percent of cases. The biggest risk factor for ovarian cancer? Having ovaries. This is why all women need to be aware of ovarian cancer symptoms and keep current on check-ups. These are 15 silent cancer symptoms many women ignore.

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Myth: If there’s no family history of ovarian cancer then you don’t have to worry about it

If genetics only account for ten percent of the most common type of ovarian cancer, then that means 90 percent are “sporadic.” Rather than simply look at family history, Dr. Vasilev says women need to be aware of all potential ovarian cancer risk factors. Obesity, diabetes, never being pregnant, not breastfeeding, eating a high-fat diet, and/or smoking all may increase your risk of getting ovarian cancer, he says. But the number one risk factor (after being female) is your age. More than half of all ovarian cancer cases are diagnosed in women over 60.

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Myth: An annual Pap smear test will catch ovarian cancer

“Pap smears are only designed to catch cervical cancer,” Dr. Vasilev says, adding that there is not a single screening test for ovarian cancer. “Right now the CA125 blood test and a pelvic ultrasound are the standard but they’re unreliable,” he explains, adding that there are several promising new tests in development that will hopefully be on the market in the next few years.

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Myth: There are no early symptoms of ovarian cancer

There are early symptoms of ovarian cancer, Dr. Vasilev says, but the problem is they’re pretty generic, often leading women to be misdiagnosed with gastrointestinal problems or menstrual issues. These misdiagnoses are the reason that this cancer often isn’t caught until it’s stage 3, meaning it’s spread throughout the body. So if you have any symptoms of ovarian cancer, including chronic bloating, sudden changes in your bowel or urine habits, pelvic or abdominal pain or pressure, pain during sex, rapid weight loss for no reason, or indigestion, insist on getting your ovaries tested, just to be safe. Watch out for the symptoms of ovarian cancer you might ignore.

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Myth: You can’t prevent ovarian cancer

“There’s a lot a good diet and exercise can do to prevent not just ovarian but many cancers,” Dr. Vasilev says. Eating nutritious food—he recommends a Mediterranean diet based around fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, and whole grains—and getting a daily workout can boost your immune system and lessen inflammation, helping protect you against cancer. In addition, these will help reduce obesity and overweight, another major risk factor of cancer that is under your control. He also recommends making sure your vitamin D levels are in the optimal range and taking a supplement if they’re not. Lastly, hormonal birth control pills and getting a hysterectomy can also lower your risk. Learn these other simple habits that can help prevent cancer.

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Myth: Ovarian cancer is a death sentence

“Some women hear ‘ovarian cancer’ and give up without even trying to treat it,” Dr. Vasilev says, “but even though most of the time it’s advanced, there are still things we can do. Treatments have come a long way in the past few years.” Because this type of cancer is difficult to detect in the early stages, it’s often not found until it’s stage 3, which typically confers a 15 percent survival rate. But that is misleading, he says, because surgery, chemotherapy, and the new biological treatments raise the survival rate to 50 percent. Even in women who aren’t cured, the treatments can give them three or four more good years, he adds.

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Myth: There is one cause of ovarian cancer

There isn’t even just one type of ovarian cancer, much less a single cause, Dr. Vasilev explains. “The cause is unknown but we do know that inflammation, trauma to the ovaries, genetics, and the environment play a big role,” he adds. Here are some more things Ob-Gyns wish you knew about ovarian cancer.

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Myth: Ovarian cysts can turn into cancer

Having a growth on your ovary, even if it’s benign, can be scary but rest assured, Dr. Vasilev says cysts almost never turn into cancer, nor do conditions like polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) up your risk of cancer.

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Myth: The HPV vaccine protects against ovarian cancer

The HPV vaccine protects against the most common strains of the human papilloma virus, which are unrelated to ovarian cancer, Dr. Vasilev says. It’s still a good vaccine to get, especially for teens, as it protects against cervical cancer. Don’t believe these other common myths everyone believes about cancer.