September kicks off National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month—sponsored by the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, women across the U.S. should be educated about the subtle symptoms of this deadly killer– and thanks to both professional groups as well as every day women we are working together to spread the word.

Your ovaries—two small, egg-shaped organs that are located on either side of your uterus are responsible for the production of hormones as well as the release of eggs for childbearing. Because these organs are small, and located deeper within the abdomen, (not to mention surrounded by lots of other tissue) detection of any abnormalities presents certain challenges for health care providers.

Only about 19% of all cases are found in the early stages, and it’s often much later—when cancers have far advanced, before a diagnosis is made. It is this slow process of identification that makes ovarian cancer so deadly for so many women. Because of this cancer’s vague, subtle symptoms, most women overlook what’s happening until the tumor is large enough to put pressure against the bowels and bladder. The most essential tip to remember about ovarian cancer symptoms is that early symptoms persist even after diet changes, laxatives, exercise and rest have been implemented for treatment. So what are the symptoms that women should be watching for?

• Fatigue
• Upset stomach or heartburn
• Back pain
• Painful sex
• Constipation
• Changes in your period

Every woman should have a pelvic exam annually to monitor for changes in your ovaries. About 5%-10% of cases are related to your family history as well—so it’s good to keep tabs on family members if you can.

If your doctor does find an abnormality, he or she will probably start by using ultrasound technology to take a look at the ovary. Some blood tests, like the CA-125 can be used to look for tumor markers in the blood that could indicate the presence of cancer cells.

Right now, there are no set guidelines to help you stop ovarian cancer from developing. There do seem to be some lifestyle decisions you can make that may help reduce your risk though. For some women, the use of birth control pills for 3 years or more dropped their risk of ovarian cancer by 30%-50%. For others, surgical procedures like having your tubes tied can reduce the risk. For higher risk women, they may opt to have the ovaries removed surgically before a cancer can develop. Above all, following a healthy diet and lifestyle that includes exercise can help keep your body running more smoothly.

Even using prevention won’t solve every issue—and no woman should substitute the use of birth control pills for a good old-fashioned check up by their doctor. Dr. Barbara Hessel is here to make sure you can identify any possible risk factors for ovarian cancer, provide you with screenings, and lead you in the event that treatment might be needed. If you haven’t seen a doctor lately, have questions, or are just looking for professional guidance, make an appointment today. We are waiting to help.