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Ultrasound Pictures of Ovarian Cancer

During the process of diagnosing ovarian cancer, doctors will use several tests to learn more about the tumor. The first test that doctors usually recommend is an ultrasound. This painless imaging test helps doctors see what the inside of the abdomen looks like. Doctors can use ultrasounds to detect various problems with the ovaries and nearby organs.

How Do Ultrasounds Work?

An ultrasound machine uses a small handheld tool called a transducer to send sound waves into the body. These sound waves are painless and are so high-pitched that humans can’t hear them. Echoes of the sound waves bounce back to the transducer, and the machine converts the sound waves into an image. The result is a sonogram — a picture of the tissues and organs within a particular part of the body.

There are a couple of types of ultrasound. When diagnosing potential cases of ovarian cancer, doctors often use a transvaginal ultrasound, in which a probe is placed into the vagina. Doctors may also perform a pelvic ultrasound, in which the transducer is placed on the skin of the lower part of the abdomen. Both of these approaches can capture pictures of the ovaries and uterus.

What Does the Ovary Look Like on an Ultrasound?

Sonograms from an ultrasound test can show several features of the ovary. They allow doctors to see the size and shape of the ovary. A sonogram can also look at the texture of the outer surface of the ovary. Additionally, ultrasound imaging can detect abnormalities or masses on the ovary, which may or may not be cancerous.

The Normal Ovary on an Ultrasound

Ultrasound of the normal right ovary without an ovarian follicle.
This ultrasound image shows a normal right ovary that contains no ovarian follicles. (Medical Images)

In general, the ovaries appear as almond-shaped structures on either side of the uterus. In individuals who have given birth multiple times, the ovaries may have moved slightly from their original position. The ovaries also shrink after menopause, so an ultrasound may not be able to detect them in older people.

For individuals who have not yet gone through menopause and are still getting their period, their ovary will contain follicles. Ovarian follicles are small sacs. Each one contains an egg cell. Follicles develop and grow larger throughout the beginning phase of the menstrual cycle. Then, a single follicle will continue to grow until it releases an egg, called ovulation.

Ultrasound of the left ovary during follicular phase (seventh day) of the menstrual cycle, showing an 11 mm ovarian follicle (pink).
This ultrasound image shows a left ovary during the follicular phase (seventh day) of the menstrual cycle. The ovarian follicle (pink) measures 11 millimeters. (Medical Images)

On an ultrasound, the follicles may appear as small, dark, round shapes around the edge of the ovary. Follicles may be different sizes depending on where a person is within their menstrual cycle.

Cysts on an Ultrasound

Sometimes, an ultrasound may detect other more unusual features within an ovary. Most of these findings are not cancerous, and many are not harmful

An ultrasound showing ovarian cysts.
Ovarian cysts are visible in this ultrasound image. These types of cysts are usually noncancerous and appear round and black on an ultrasound. (Adobe Stock)

A common ultrasound finding is a cyst (a fluid-filled sac). About 8 percent to 18 percent of women have cysts on their ovaries. Occasionally, ovarian cancer may appear as a cyst. However, ovarian cysts are usually benign (noncancerous). Often, cysts develop when a follicle fails to release an egg or fails to disappear after ovulation. These cysts usually go away over time. Occasionally, cysts are caused when blood or tissue from the uterus attaches to the ovary, called endometriomas. Cysts can also be teratomas — masses that form when an egg cell begins growing within the follicle.

Like follicles, cysts usually appear round and black on an ultrasound. They often have thin walls and don’t look like they contain anything inside. However, they are often larger than normal follicles.

Cysts don’t usually need any treatment and are often not a cause for concern. In some cases, doctors may recommend a follow-up ultrasound a few months later to see if the cyst has grown.

Ovarian Cancer on an Ultrasound

In rare cases, ovarian cysts or solid masses may be malignant (cancerous). The ultrasound doesn’t show for sure whether an abnormality is cancer, but it can provide clues. Malignant cysts and masses usually look a little different on an ultrasound. They may:

  • Be very large
  • Have papillary structures (bulges) on their outer or inner surface
  • Be divided into multiple segments called loculations
  • Contain blood or other material inside them, making them not look solid black all the way through
Ultrasound showing a large ovarian cancer mass, 17 cm in diameter.
This ultrasound image shows a large ovarian cancer mass, measuring 17 centimeters in diameter. Images alone don’t necessarily reveal whether these types of abnormalities are cancerous, but they can provide clues. (CAMAL/Medical Images)

Some cases of ovarian cancer begin in the fallopian tubes (the tubes that connect the ovaries to the uterus). Fallopian tubes are usually invisible on an ultrasound. However, if there is a problem with the fallopian tube, it may appear as a long, thin mass. This may happen when the fallopian tube grows larger or fills with fluid due to conditions like a blockage, pelvic inflammatory disease, or cancer.

Doctors consider other information when deciding how likely it is that a cyst or mass is malignant. Risk factors that help indicate whether an abnormality is malignant include:

  • Your age
  • Whether you have gone through menopause
  • Levels of CA-125 (a protein that can serve as a sign of ovarian cancer)
  • How big the mass is
  • How much solid tissue is inside of the mass, as opposed to fluid
  • How many bulges or projections a mass contains
  • How many masses are present
  • Whether you have ascites (fluid in your abdomen)

If these factors indicate that you may have a malignancy, your doctor may recommend additional diagnostic tests or surgery to get a better look.

What Don’t Ultrasounds Tell You?

Although ultrasounds have several very useful purposes, they also have limitations. Doctors rely on additional diagnostic tests to gather more information about problems with the ovaries.

Whether You Have Cancer

Ultrasounds can detect abnormalities, and they can provide a clue as to whether an ovarian mass or cyst might be cancerous. However, biopsies are the only way to tell for sure whether a mass contains cancer cells.

For people with ovarian cancer, a biopsy is usually taken during surgery. Biopsies of the ovary are not usually performed before surgery because a needle biopsy of the ovary might potentially release cancer cells that were otherwise contained. The surgeon will send pieces of the mass to a laboratory where the cells will be studied under a microscope to determine whether they are cancerous. Biopsies also help determine the type of ovarian cancer.

Whether Ovarian Cancer Has Spread

The later the ovarian cancer stage is, the farther cancer cells have metastasized (spread within the body). Determining cancer’s stage is important for determining the prognosis (outlook) and knowing which treatment plan may be best.

Doctors don’t use ultrasounds to tell how far ovarian cancer cells have spread. Ultrasounds can’t distinguish whether cells are cancerous or not, and they are only used to look at one part of the body at a time. In order to determine cancer stage and locate metastases, doctors use other imaging tests or procedures. These other tests, which are often better at detecting cancer cells and show larger areas of the body, include:

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan
  • Surgery

Ultrasounds and Cancer Screening

Ultrasounds can be used to detect potential ovarian tumors. Does this mean that this test can help screen people for ovarian cancer?

Researchers have studied whether a transvaginal ultrasound helps detect ovarian cancer during its early stages. They have also studied whether adding blood tests to measure CA-125 levels helps improve ultrasound screening. However, the results were not promising. These tests often pick up benign, noncancerous conditions, which means that individuals who use these screening methods often undergo additional and sometimes unnecessary tests and surgeries. Additionally, ultrasound and CA-125 screenings don’t seem to reduce the overall number of people who die from ovarian cancer.

Experts say that individuals who have an average risk of developing ovarian cancer should not be screened using the currently available methods. However, some doctors recommend regular screening for those with a high risk of ovarian cancer. This includes women who have many family members who have had ovarian or breast cancer or women with genetic mutations in high-risk genes such as BRCA1 or BRCA2.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyOvarianCancerTeam is the social network for people with ovarian cancer. More than 3,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with ovarian cancer.

Are you living with ovarian cancer? Have you had to get an ultrasound test? Start a conversation by posting on MyOvarianCancerTeam.

The Foundation for Women’s Cancer Educational Series

The Foundation for Women’s Cancer (FWC) offers a comprehensive set of free educational courses designed to support patients and caregivers that answers the question, “What do I need to know?” for a cancer journey. From the basics of “what is cancer?” to understanding treatments, clinical trials and how genetics play a role, to lifestyle discussions on sexual health and nutrition, these courses meet you where you are to answer the questions you might have. Available in a variety of self-study and live webinar formats, these courses are available for you when you need them. Additional downloadable resources are a part of each course.

Take Me to Educational Events

In this moment

“Is there a pressure to be positive all the time?” my friend Kathy asked.

It’s a good question. I said, “No,” and then “Yes,” and added in a “Maybe.”

But it’s not a simple yes, no, or maybe. It’s actually Yes-No-Maybe all at the same time. My kid is on Facebook and so is my family. My friends are on Facebook and they want the best or at least to know I’m not suffering. I’m aware of that and of them. But that doesn’t mean I show up fake or put on fronts. I don’t.

The pressure to be positive isn’t external. I am safe to be real with SO MANY people and that luxury is a gift beyond measure. The desire to be positive comes from within but it’s not motivated by pressure. It’s real. In general, I ACTUALLY FEEL positive.

And also, when my oncologist asks how my partner or daughter are doing, I say:

“Well, I’m cranky, lethargic, have chemo-brain, and obsessed with recurrence so that’s fun for them…”

That’s also real.

Real is positive.

So, when people say I’m strong, a rock star, a warrior, and a fighter, I can’t say I feel I am any of those things. My day to day to life has been changed and though I feel 100% half-ass as a mom, partner, friend, relative, and employee – I also know I’m doing the best I can.

I don’t even have much time to think of how I’m doing because I’m so busy doing, if that makes sense.

It’s like I woke up after surgery standing in the middle of a highway I didn’t drive myself on. The focus is dodging the cars going 75 m.p.h. on my left and right while feeling groggy and confused. When I manage to make it to the sidewalk or the rest area, the relief I feel is real. I’m happy to be alive and out of danger. It’s a genuine and consuming experience. I’m relieved any time I’m not in the road and also aware I could be dropped back on that highway in another minute, day, week, or year.

That’s the complexity and reality of living with cancer (#ovarian, high-grade serious, stage 3) that, even when it’s effectively treated, still recurs 75% to 85% of the time. To have no evidence of disease isn’t the type of blessing I’ve been in the habit of counting.

For decades, I have had the luxury of physical wellness and had never stayed overnight in a hospital. Health isn’t something I take for granted anymore but that doesn’t make me a warrior as much as it makes me someone changed by cancer more than by choice.

I used to think people were sick with cancer, and either mounted a “successful” fight and returned to living or lost “the fight” and died. It seemed either/or and as those were the two extreme outcomes.

I knew my mother HAD cervical cancer in her early 20’s and survived. I knew that my Nana and her two siblings had cancer in their 60’s, and did not. They died.

I know cancer is always a full-on fight for the person with cancer and those that live with and love them (us), but fights are won or lost and that is the problem with the “fight cancer” narrative. It’s way too simplistic for the complexity of cancer, cancer treatment, cancer survivorship, palliative care, and grief.

It omits the vast amounts of time that many of us live with cancer. We live with it in active form, or in remission, or in fear of recurrence, and sometimes with recurrence after recurrence. That way of living may last one or two years or one or two decades. We may have years we seem to be “winning” the fight and years we seem to be “losing.”

But winning and losing is far too simplistic. Some live and have loss. Some die and should be counted as winners.

I’d never known some fight the same cancer repeatedly, or “beat” it before getting another kind and another and another. I didn’t know that people cancer can be a lifelong disease and that some kinds are genetic time bombs in our bodies and families that can put us at risk even if we never smoked.

I didn’t know that one can have or five surgeries, that the side effects can start at the head (loss of hair, headaches, chemo brain, no nose hair, dry mouth, hearing loss), for example, and go all the way to the feet with lymph edema, joint pain, neuropathy, and that all the organs in between can be impacted as well.

I didn’t know that most cancer side effects are not from cancer but the treatments to fight, eradicate, and prevent more cancer.

I didn’t know that in addition to chemo, one might contend with liver or kidney issues, with high or low blood pressure, with changes to the way heart beats, the digestive symptom works.

I didn’t know that cancer surgery might include a hysterectomy and removing some or several organs, lymph nodes and body parts I’d never heard of. I didn’t know how it’s impossible to know what is from cancer, chemo, menopause or the piles of pills one is prescribed.

I didn’t know how much the body can endure and still keep going. I didn’t know I’d have a body that would have to learn and know all that I was mostly ignorant about -even though cancer is a disease not unknown to my own family members.

I am still learning and knowing and going. I hope what I learn keeps others from having to have first-hand knowledge of the cancer experience.

And even as I say that I know the ways I’ve been changed are not all bad, hard, or grueling.

I didn’t know that at, even in the midst of being consumed by all things basic bodily functioning (breathing, heart beating, eating, pooping, sleeping, and staying alive), one can also be grateful, satisfied, and appreciate life and loved ones.

I know it now and feel grateful daily.

Five months after my diagnosis, I’m what’s called NED (No Evident Disease). It means that after surgery, and then 5 rounds of chemo, a carbo/taxol combination every 3 weeks, there is no sign of ovarian cancer. My CA 125, a cancer marker in the blood, is back to normal. Things are looking better today and I’m grateful, optimistic, relieved, but also know that my life is forever changed, and I’ll never be out of the woods.

Despite my NED status, my chances of being alive in 10 years are 15%.

Despite my NED status, my chances of being alive in five years are less than 30%.

Did you know 70% of those with ovarian cancer die within five years of being diagnosed?

I’m not a statistic, but a person – still, it’s hard not to do the calculations.

5 years from my diagnosis I’ll be 57, and my daughter 21.
5 years from my diagnosis, my partner will be 62.
Will we get to retire together, ever?  Will I get 5 years?

It’s hard not to wonder if some or all of those five years are what most would consider “good” years and how I will manage well no matter what? And how my loved ones will fare…

So I focus on moments, days, and now.

My new mantra remains, “In this moment….”

It’s how I approach all of my days.

I do think and worry about the future, and even plan for the worst while also planning for the best. Because the best is always possible.

What if, I’m the 15% and live for 10 or more years? What if I make it to 62? What if a new way to detect, manage, or treat ovarian cancer is discovered? What if I discover some synergy in remedies and medicines not yet combined?

Maybe I will see my kid graduate college or start a career. Maybe I’ll help her shop for furniture in a new apartment. No one knows the future. No one guaranteed more than now.

Maybe I’ll get to go to Europe with my partner, elope and return married, or stay forever engaged.

Maybe I’ll attend a mother-daughter yoga retreat with friends like I’ve always wanted to do.

Maybe I’ll spend a month at a cabin writing and eating good food with my besties?

Maybe I’ll be able to be there for my family members and friends the way they have been there for me?

Maybe I’ll get to walk my dog at the same beach and park, with my guy, my brother and sister-in-law, and our dogs and kids?

I don’t know how much time I’ll get or what life holds.

I know when my Nana died in her mid 60’s it seemed way too soon. I know that now, if I make it to my mid 60’s, it will be miraculous.

I don’t put as much into my retirement savings.

I think more about how to spend time, and money, now.

These are not negative thoughts they are the thoughts of someone contending with cancer and wide awake while pondering my own mortality.

“You won’t die of this,” some have said. “Cancer won’t kill you.”

But no one knows that for sure. It’s not an assurance the oncologists offer.

People mean well when they say such things but I no longer bite my tongue when I hear these words.

I say, “I might die of this,” (and I think, but don’t say, and you may as well).

I do remind people that we are all going to die and few of us will get to choose the time or place or method. It’s not wrong to acknowledge mortality. It’s not depressing and it does not mean one is giving up. I want to be responsible, and quickly, as I don’t have the luxury to be as reflective as I used to be because cancer is all-consuming.

I’ve barely had a moment to reflect on the past five months never mind the last five decades. I am trying to stay on top of the bare minimum requirements of being alive. I can’t yet keep up with emails or phone calls or visits. Projects and goals and plans of all kinds have shifted, paused, halted, or been abandoned.

My energy is now a resource I have to monitor and preserve. My will is not something I can endlessly tap into or call upon to motor me and keep me motivated. There’s no resource I have yet to tap into or call upon. Each day, I must consciously and repeatedly work to fill the well. And now, when friends and family who work while sick, I no longer think they are tough or strong. I think of how we routinely punish and ignore our bodies. I notice how often we run on fumes, require more of ourselves than we have as though we will never tire out.

I think of all those who must or feel they must keep going no matter what, without pause or rest, oblivious to the toll it will take or of those who have systems that can’t fight their germs. And I think of employers who sometimes require it because they offer no paid time off.

I used to run myself ragged. I used to say, “I’m digging deep, into my bone marrow if I have to.” I wasn’t being literal.

Now, when my iron and my platelets go low, I think of my old words in new ways. Now, even my bone marrow isn’t what is used to be.

I’m entirely who I always was and completely different.

It’s both.

I am more and less of who I was.

My life and days are simple and structured now and also heavy, layered, and complex. Who and what fills my day, by choice and not by choice, is radically different.

Cancer changed my life. That’s irrefutable and will be whether I live or die in the sooner or in the later.

I speak with and interact with doctors, nurses, life insurance and disability insurance and pharmacists more. I spend more money on supplements, clean eating, and make more time to walk, exercise, and sleep. There’s so much less I am capable of.

But sometimes, even without hair, I feel totally like myself.

Sometimes, like this week, my daughter caught me in the middle of life, reading a book, petting the cat, on my bed in my heated infrared sauna blanket. I was relaxed and at ease.

I shared this photo and someone commented on how my “cat scan” was quite feline, – the image brought a whole new meaning to the “cat scan” image.

I laughed and laughed and laughed. I’m still laughing.

In this moment, in many moments, I’m humbled by the enormity of all things cancer and being alive. That’s real. That’s there. It can be intense.

But also, in this moment, I’m laughing.

And laughing, it turns out, is my favorite way to live.

Gynecologic Cancer Screening Guidelines

This resource was originally published by Loyola University Medical Center here.

Screening Guidelines for the Early Detection of Gynecologic Cancers

Screening tests are used to look for disease before you exhibit any symptoms, and are effective when they detect disease early, leading to more effective treatment and positive outcomes. 

American Cancer Society recommends the following screening guidelines for early detection and prevention of gynecologic cancers:

  • Cervical cancer –  Regular testing for cervical cancer should begin at age 21 for cervical cancer prevention. If you are between the ages of 21 and 29, you should have a screening test every three years. Between the ages of 30 and 65, you should have a screening test every five years. If you are over the age of 65 with normal cervical cancer test results, you should no longer be tested. Women over the age of 65 with a history of cervical pre-cancer should continue to be tested for at least 20 years.
  • Uterine cancer – The American Cancer Society recommends that at the time of menopause, all women should be told about the risks and symptoms of endometrial cancer, which may include abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge, or pelvic pain and pressure. Some women, due to their history, may need to consider having a yearly endometrial biopsy.
  • Ovarian cancer – There are not currently any screening tests available for ovarian cancer. Doctors often perform a pelvic exam, which includes checking the ovaries, but this exam does not generally detect ovarian cysts unless they are very large. Doctors rely on the common symptoms of bloating, abdominal pain and change in urinary symptoms to guide them in the detection of ovarian cancer. If you believe you are at risk for ovarian cancer, Loyola offers a cancer risk assessment program, which provides detailed risk assessments for patients with a susceptibility to ovarian cancer.
  • Vaginal and vulvar cancer – Currently, there are no screening tests available for vaginal and vulvar cancer. The best way for you to know if you might have these cancer types is to get regular check-ups and notify your doctor if you have any signs or symptoms. Your doctor may perform a pelvic exam to look for lumps or changes in your vagina or changes in the skin of your vulva.

Each specific type of gynecologic cancer has its own unique set of risk factors, and there is no way to know who will get gynecologic cancer. Doctors at Loyola are committed to working with you to understand your specific family and medical history and symptoms to develop a screening program specific to your needs. 

What Screening Tests are Available for Gynecologic Cancer?

Cervical cancer is the only gynecologic cancer for which there is a specific screening test, the Pap smear. The Pap test helps prevent cervical cancer by finding precancerous cells that might eventually become cervical cancer. If these cells are detected, doctors at Loyola are able to remove cells and prevent cancer development.

In addition to the Pap test, an HPV test can be performed to look for the HPV virus, a common sexually transmitted virus that, if left untreated, may cause gynecologic cancers. If you are between the ages of 30 and 65, your doctor should perform an HPV test in conjunction with your Pap test. 

Young women can receive an HPV vaccine that will protect against the types of HPV that most commonly cause cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers. The vaccine is given in a series of three shots, and is recommended for girls ages 11 and 12.

Other gynecologic cancers rely on you to understand your body and work with your doctor if you develop any unusual symptoms or changes in order to detect any cancers early.

If you are concerned about the possibility of gynecologic cancer due to family history, symptoms or screening results, contact your primary care physician who can make additional recommendations for your specific concerns.