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As with any disease process, the role of nurses is to be ever vigilant about staying current on the latest advances with regards to ovarian cancer and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). As September is the awareness month for both of these conditions, it’s a good time to brush up on understanding the nurses’ role as caregivers to women. Here is a brief overview of each condition.

PCOS

PCOS is a condition that involves a cluster of symptoms related to the endocrine system, metabolism, and physical appearance. Women with PCOS experience irregular or absent menses, hormonal imbalance, and often infertility. Furthermore, PCOS is linked to diabetes, hypertension, sleep apnea, depression, and endometrial cancer. 

Although most of the symptoms are invisible, the symptoms related to appearance can be incredibly distressing. This includes hirsutism, (or excess body and facial hair), acne, abdominal fat, skin discoloration, and male-patterned baldness. 

PCOS affects up to 10% of women with childbearing age of all races and ethnicities. It is more common in women with obesity and those who have family members with PCOS.  

Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer is often asymptomatic until it has progressed significantly. Furthermore, symptoms of ovarian cancer are often the same as symptoms of noncancerous conditions, such as bloating, fullness, pain during sex, constipation, and urinary urgency and frequency. For these reasons, it is often diagnosed at a later, potentially more fatal stage of the disease. 

The five-year survival rate for ovarian cancer varies significantly by stage and tumor type, ranging from 47% to 93% for all stages combined.

Risk factors for ovarian cancer according to the National Cancer Institute are a family history of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, certain types of colorectal cancer, and certain changes in the BRCA1, BRCA2 genes, hormone replacement therapy, endometriosis, and obesity. Protective factors include oral contraceptives, tubal ligation, having given birth, history of salpingectomy, and breastfeeding.  

The Nurse’s Role

The nurse’s role for both PCOS and ovarian cancer are the same: stay informed, educate patients, be alert for risk factors, encourage screening, and treat them with compassionate care.  

By understanding a patient’s family history and lifestyle, the nurse can encourage patients to take action that supports their health and potentially protects them from the long-term consequences of an undiagnosed or untreated disease.

All nurses, particularly those who work in oncology and women’s health, can take it upon themselves every September to revisit their understanding of both PCOS and ovarian cancer. Although studies have been inconclusive in looking at correlations between PCOS and ovarian cancer, it is worth mentioning that either can have a profound effect on the quality of life and morbidity for women.

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Nancy Swezey, BSN, RN, CNOR

Nancy Swezey received her BSN from Columbia University. She now practices in New York City in the operating room where she has worked as a staff nurse, and currently as a care coordinator specializing in head and neck surgery. Nancy is also pursuing her advanced practice degree at CUNY Hunter where she assists the faculty as a research assistant, focusing on nurse education and module development.
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