By Jim Stubenrauch, senior editor

OvarianCancerArticleThis month, AJN is joining in the nationwide effort to raise awareness and promote education about ovarian cancer. The September issue contains an original research paper on “Women’s Awareness of Ovarian Cancer Risks and Symptoms” by Suzy Lockwood-Rayermann, PhD, MSN, RN, and colleagues. The authors analyzed data collected from an online survey completed by more than 1,200 women ages 40 and older and found that awareness of ovarian cancer symptoms and risk factors is low. This suggests that nurses have an excellent opportunity to educate patients and help them get diagnosed at earlier stages of the disease when it’s more treatable.

You can also hear an interview I conducted with Dr. Lockwood-Rayermann on our podcasts page.

I’ll summarize the study below, but first, you might want to know that cancer survivor, actress, and women’s health activist Fran Drescher wrote on a related topic in this month’s Viewpoint, “Women, Take Control of Your Bodies!” Drescher discusses her battle with uterine cancer and the crucial support her sister Nadine, a nurse, provided on her “medical oddysey.” After writing a book about her experience, Cancer Schmancer, Drescher started the Cancer Schmancer Movement, an organization dedicated to promoting education, legislation, and social reform aimed at early detection of cancer.

Back to the ovarian cancer awareness research, for those who want more details without actually going to the article: The vast majority of cases of ovarian cancer are diagnosed at stage III or IV, and five-year survival rates after diagnosis at these stages are 71% and 31%, respectively. Although a consensus among researchers on the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer has evolved over time, whether women themselves know them isn’t clear.

The authors used an online survey instrument developed in 2006 by the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition in collaboration with a private research firm that conducted the survey and collected the data. The survey items collected demographic data and asked respondents about their familiarity with ovarian cancer symptoms and risk factors. Women were also asked whether they thought the Papanicolaou test diagnosed ovarian cancer (a common misconception) and whether they had discussed ovarian cancer with a physician, and if they had, who had initiated the conversation. Data from a convenience sample of 1,235 responses to the online survey were analyzed, using descriptive and comparative statistics. Respondents were categorized by age, education level, race or ethnicity, and whether or not they knew someone with ovarian cancer. Comparisons were made to determine whether demographic factors were associated with women’s knowledge of specific symptoms and risk factors associated with ovarian cancer.

The results were not encouraging: only 15% of respondents were familiar with ovarian cancer symptoms, and more than two-thirds incorrectly believed that the Papanicolaou test diagnoses it. Four out of five had never had a conversation with a physician about symptoms and risk factors; among these, more than half assumed that because their physician had not initiated such a discussion, ovarian cancer was “not an issue.” Of the 19% of women who’d had such discussions, two-thirds had initiated it themselves. Respondents were more knowledgeable about risk factors; 59% correctly identified personal or family history of breast, ovarian, or colon cancer, and half of respondents correctly identified genetic predisposition, as risk factors.

All of this suggests that nurses and physicians should provide women with specific information on symptoms and risk factors in educating them on ovarian cancer.

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