How to find the best doctor for ovarian cancer

Dec 13, 2015 at 10:00 a.m. ET
Image: Crazydiva/Getty Images

If your child was sick with cancer, you would go wherever you could to ensure the best care.

So, why wouldn’t you apply the same standard to yourself? A woman’s risk of having ovarian cancer sometime during her life is about 1 in 75, and unlike breast cancer (which is seven times more common), ovarian cancer has yet to attract a significant campaign around survival, treatment and care.

The truth is that treating ovarian cancer in the most effective way requires work from patients. It takes research, a clear understanding of what’s going on in your body and a greater commitment to finding the right kind of treatment.

What are the odds?

Because up to 1 million women each year have pelvic masses and as many as 300,000 undergo surgery for them, finding the nearly 22,000 annual cases of ovarian cancer is like locating a needle in a haystack. One place to start is by considering your risk factors.

You’re more likely to be at risk of ovarian cancer if: 

  • Your mother, sister, daughter or other first-degree relative has had ovarian cancer
  • You have had breast cancer before age 40
  • You have had breast cancer before age 50 and one or more relatives have had breast or ovarian cancer
  • Two or more of your close relatives have had breast cancer before age 50 or ovarian cancer at any age
  • You have Ashkenazi Jewish heritage and a history of breast cancer before age 50
  • You have Ashkenazi Jewish heritage and have a close relative with breast cancer before age 50 or ovarian cancer at any age

You’re probably wondering, “What do I do if I have one or more of these risk factors? What if I’m one of the 1 million women each year with a pelvic mass?”

Before you turn to WebMD or start barking up your family tree, remember one simple, powerful decision you can make: choosing the right surgeon.

Determining your best course of treatment

If you come to need surgery, you should know that women with ovarian cancer who put their care in the hands of doctors with expertise in gynecologic cancer have better survival rates than women who do not. While your trusted OB-GYN might be qualified to perform ovarian cyst surgery, she might not have the surgical training in minimally invasive technology or gynecologic oncology that’s required for the best odds.

A gynecologic oncologist will have specialized in those technical procedures and is, therefore, more likely to make the correct diagnosis. This kind of specialist is crucial to diagnosis and care.

Here’s how it works with a specialist at the helm: During surgery, samples of the mass are collected and sent to a pathologist for analysis to determine whether the patient has ovarian cancer. A gynecologic oncologist will then perform one of the most important steps during the surgery: staging.

Staging — which is a determination of how far the disease has spread — is when the surgeon’s expertise and training comes into play. With an accurate staging assessment comes the best course of action for the patient’s treatment. Staging is often followed by the removal of any tumors that have spread outside the ovaries and an assessment of whether chemotherapy is necessary.

There’s a lot to consider if you’re facing surgery for a pelvic mass. Women of all ages could be grappling with the potential effects of a procedure on childbearing, sexuality, physical and emotional well-being and family dynamics. A gynecologic oncologist can offer continuity over the long haul.

It’s important to treat yourself as you would any family member, so seek the best care by finding the specialist who is right for your needs.