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Ovarian Cancer Still Gets Shortchanged, National Academy of Medicine Report Finds

Ovarian cancer is being shortchanged in terms of medical attention and understanding, even though it's one of the deadliest cancers there is, experts reported Wednesday.

It's still treated as a single cancer even though there are actually multiple types, many of which do not even start in the ovaries, the National Academy of Medicine reported.

Image: ovarian cancer
A patient has a line inserted into her side during a chemotherapy treatment at Ohio State`s James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute. Ohio State University / MediaSource

And treatment falls short, the panel of experts said. There are not many treatments to choose from, but half of all women with ovarian cancer don't even get the best treatments out there.

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"In spite of their high mortality rates, ovarian cancers often do not receive as much attention as other cancers," reads the report from the Academy, formerly named the Institute of Medicine.

"The five-year survival of women with the most common and fatal type of ovarian cancer, high-grade serous carcinoma, has increased over the past four decades as a result of advances in specialty care and the development of effective first-line chemotherapy (i.e., platinum compounds in combination with drugs of the taxane family)," reads the report from the committee, chaired by Dr. Jerome Strauss, dean of the school of medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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"However, there are concerning racial disparities and a number of unresolved issues regarding the optimal treatment of newly diagnosed women which if addressed could lead to further reductions in morbidity and mortality. Moreover, important discoveries that directly influence clinical recommendations or care have not been widely adopted," it adds.

A woman has a much better chance of surviving ovarian cancer if she is treated by a gynecologic cancer specialist in a place where many cases of ovarian cancer are treated. But that's not an option for many women, the report said.

Ovarian cancer is diagnosed in more than 21,000 women a year in the United States, and it kills more than 14,000. "It is the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths among women, with a five-year survival rate of less than 46 percent," the panel said in its report.

"However, five-year survival rates decreased for black women, from 42 percent between 1975 and 1977 to 36 percent between 2005 and 2007."

It's so deadly partly because the signs are vague and women don't realize they have cancer until it has spread. Women and their doctors both often fail to take seriously symptoms such as bleeding and bloating, the report finds.

"The committee found recent evidence that suggests many ovarian cancers arise in other tissues besides the ovary, such as the fallopian tubes, which eventually metastasize to the ovary, or they arise from cells that are not considered intrinsic to the ovary," the report said.

"Furthermore, researchers do not have a complete understanding of how each subtype of ovarian cancer progresses."

The committee recommended more and better resarch into ovarian cancer, how it arises, who's at most risk, and which treatments are the most effective.