Ovarian Cancer 101: What African-American Women Should Know

Contributor: Dr. Maggie A. Smith

What is ovarian cancer?

To address this question, let’s first discuss what cancer is. Cancer is when cells grow rampantly out of control throughout the body. Ovarian cancer is a cancer of the female reproductive system and typical develops within the ovaries; however, recent studies have shown that it may possibly begin distally within the fallopian tubes.

What is the incidence?

Ovarian cancer ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women, it is known as the, “silent killer.” The American Cancer Society (ACS) projects about 22,530 women will be diagnosed and approximately 13,980 women will die from ovarian cancer in the United States this year. A woman's risk of developing ovarian cancer during her lifetime is about 1 in 78. Ovarian cancer mainly develops in older women (63 years median age) and while its incidence is higher in White women, more African-American women die from this disease.

Signs and symptoms:

Unfortunately early ovarian cancer usually presents with no obvious symptoms, hence the reference above naming it a “silent killer.” When symptoms develop, sometimes they are often ignored as they range from bloating, back pain, pelvic or abdominal pain, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly and urinary frequency. If these symptoms persist for two weeks or more, schedule an appointment with your doctor immediately.

Risk factors:

Let’s first talk about the non-modifiable risk factors; these are things you cannot control. Family history is extremely important when discussing non-modifiable risk factors for ovarian cancer. Having a first degree relative (parent, sibling, child) diagnosed with ovarian cancer can increase a woman’s risk; also having a first degree relative with a history of breast cancer or having breast cancer yourself can increase your risk of the disease. Your genes play a role too, if there are mutations in BRCA1 and/or BRCA2, which are the most common genes involved in ovarian cancer, this can increase a woman’s risk.

Take action:

To reduce your risk of developing ovarian cancer let’s discuss the modifiable risk factors; these are things you can potential control to minimize your risk. Reproductive and hormonal factors play a role in this. For example, a full-term pregnancy can lower a woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer and taking oral contraceptives for a minimum of 5 years or having a fallopian tube ligation has shown to decrease a woman’s risk. Breastfeeding has also shown a modest decrease in ovarian cancer risk. Last but not least, maintaining a healthy weight, reducing alcohol and fat consumption, exercising more frequently and most importantly if you smoke, QUIT, helping minimize your risk of developing ovarian cancer in your lifetime.


Maggie A. Smith, DNP, MSN/Ed, RN, OCN©

Dr. Smith completed her undergraduate degree at, Chicago State University with a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing, her graduate degree at, University of Phoenix, where she graduated cum laude with a Master’s Degree in Nursing with a Specialization in Health Care Education and her Doctor in Nursing Practice Degree from the Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing at Loyola University. For the last thirteen years, Dr. Smith has held an oncology nursing certification. Dr. Smith’s clinical knowledge comes from her first-hand experience at the prestigious University of Chicago Hospitals, where she worked as a, Charge Nurse on the Bone Marrow Transplant (BMT) overflow unit and as a Clinical Research Associate, working on various Phase 1-3, oncology clinical trials and currently she still practices per diem. Over the years, she has served and led several committees within the Oncology Nursing Society (ONS), reviewer of the, Integrating Psychosocial Care into Oncology Nursing course and is currently serving as, Director-at-Large for the national ONS, and has been a contributing author to the Oncology Certification Course and to the Oncology Nursing News.

Locally she is currently, Nominating-Chair and Immediate-Past President of her Chicago Chapter of Oncology Nursing Society (CCONS). In 2014, she was the first nurse to be appointed to the, American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Health Disparities Committee, to address health disparities and outcomes in cancer patients. Her clinical and research interest include, being a voice for underrepresented and underserved populations. She does a lot of community outreach and education on breast health and women empowerment.

Recently she developed and published her own preventive breast health program titled, Sisters Saving Lives; this program heightens the awareness of breast health among African-American women. She has served on the Advisory Board for the, Metropolitan Chicago Breast Cancer Task Force, serving on the Board of Directors as President for the, Sisters Network Chicago Chapter, former nurse educator on the, Beat Breast Cancer Program, with the University of Illinois, Chicago and a Bright Pink ambassador with the Bright Pink organization to name a few.

Dr. Smith is a catalyst who inspires others and her personal mission is to change the world, by sharing her scientific knowledge with the community in which she serves. Currently she works at Pfizer as a, Field Medical Director in GU oncology, working with key opinion leaders in oncology on research and other scientific initiatives and has taken several strategic lead assignments within the medical affairs division. She also is the co-owner of, Nimas Float & Spa, a health and wellness spa which focuses on integrative medicine as a complement to maintain a healthier lifestyle.