How We Can Teach Our Daughters about Ovarian Cancer

July 7, 2016

One of the greatest joys of motherhood is developing a close relationship with your daughter that includes a range of honest conversations. Some of these conversations are fun, while others may one day save her life.

It’s up to us as mothers to educate our daughters and empower them to take care of themselves and their bodies — especially when it comes to cancer.

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Bringing Awareness to the ‘Lump Below’ 

Breast cancer is undoubtedly one of the most commonly discussed diseases in the U.S. From Breast Cancer Awareness Month to multiday walks that raise funds, pink ribbons abound practically year-round. But what we often don’t talk about is ovarian cancer.

While some gynecologic cancers, such as cervical and endometrial, are becoming more familiar to the general public because of prominent symptoms and advances in care, ovarian cancer remains in the background of women’s healthcare. From puberty on, young women are taught to check for lumps in their breasts and irregularities in their periods, but they aren’t often introduced to the “lump below.”

There is still no effective screening for ovarian cancer, and common symptoms such as bloating, fatigue, and lower back pain are often overlooked. Because these warning signs are often ignored or attributed to other common ailments, ovarian cancer is known as the “silent killer.” As a result, most women aren’t diagnosed until late stages, when the five-year survival rate is much lower.

The Importance of Family History

Family history plays a role in many diseases, and ovarian cancer is no exception. As many as 10 percent of ovarian cancers are part of family cancer syndromes that result from mutations — specifically in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. What’s more, many women don’t know whether they carry the mutation. If a close family member (e.g., sister, aunt, mother, etc.) has had Lynch syndrome or cancer of the colon, uterus, breast, or ovaries, a woman is at a higher risk for having the genetic mutation and can — and should — be tested.

It pays to know your family history, and one of the biggest gifts we can give our daughters is the knowledge they need to be prepared. Ovarian cancer survivor Ivette found out that she had a cancerous mass while she was pregnant with her daughter Amanda, and now she’s dedicated to ensuring her daughter knows the risks and symptoms.

“I had no idea there was even such a thing. … I was 22 years old with ovarian cancer and a newborn in my arms and thought I was dying,” Ivette said. She hopes to correct this lack of awareness. “That’s my hope, is to give hope to the others who don’t know,” she said. “Make them aware of it. It’s hard, but you’re going to get through it.”

Symptoms Daughters Need to Know About

Mothers can help protect their daughters by talking about their own bodies and the things they do to protect themselves — chief among these being regular checkups and reporting any changes in their bodies. Though women are at higher risk for most types of cancers as they age, younger women shouldn’t consider themselves immune. Some of the symptoms of ovarian cancer include:

  • Increased lethargy

  • Bloating

  • Lower back pain

  • Unexplained changes in menstrual cycle

  • Feeling full quickly

  • Frequent urination

While these symptoms aren’t necessarily cause for concern in most cases, women should talk to their doctors if they notice sudden changes in their bodies or experience more than one of these symptoms regularly.

Advice for Moms

If you’re the mother of a daughter, you are the front line for helping her understand that she must be an advocate for her own health. Moms typically help their daughters choose their first gynecologists, and many will accompany them to their first appointments.

As your daughter approaches young adulthood, there are several things you can do to help her, preparing her to deal with her period, sex, and pregnancy. You should be educating her about her body and how it functions on an ongoing basis so she’s in tune with any changes that may occur at any age. Additionally, make sure she knows her family health history prior to her first visit to the gynecologist.

She should feel comfortable opening up to her doctor, so take the time to look for one who will listen to her concerns with an open ear. Before her first visit, talk to your daughter about your own experiences at the gynecologist and how you talk to your doctor about changes in your body.

Women have a huge impact on the healthcare system — when it comes to both their own health and their family members’ health. Ovarian cancer and other health concerns can be intimidating subjects, but it’s important to arm your daughter with the best available knowledge and tools to stay healthy. It’s up to mothers to set an example for our daughters by taking care of ourselves and empowering them to live long, healthy lives.