Facts About Ovarian Cancer
What is ovarian cancer?
The ovaries are the part of the female reproductive system that produce eggs every month during a woman's reproductive years. They are located on either side of the lower abdomen. Ovarian cancer occurs when cells in the ovary grow and divide uncontrollably. The cells may form a tumor on the ovary, or they also can break off from the main tumor and spread to other parts of the body. Although ovarian cancer can spread throughout the entire body, in most cases it stays in the abdomen and affects organs such as the intestines, liver and stomach. There are several types of ovarian cancer. However, most cancers of the ovary come from the cells that make up the outer lining of the ovary.
How common is ovarian cancer?
A woman’s risk of getting ovarian cancer during her lifetime is about one in 67. The risk of getting this cancer and dying from it is one in 95. Ovarian cancer is the eighth most common cancer in women, excluding skin cancer. It is the fifth leading cause of cancer death in women.
What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?
The initial symptoms are similar to gastrointestinal illness and indigestion, making the disease hard to diagnose. For this reason, many women are not diagnosed until late in the development of ovarian cancer. Signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer may include:
- general abdominal discomfort and/or pain (gas, indigestion, pressure, bloating, cramps)
- nausea, diarrhea, constipation and frequent urination
- loss of appetite
- feeling of fullness even after a light meal
- weight gain or loss with no known reason
- abnormal bleeding from the vagina may occur as a late symptom
These symptoms may be caused by ovarian cancer or by other less serious conditions. It is important to check with a doctor about any of these symptoms.
What are some risk factors for ovarian cancer?
The exact causes of ovarian cancer are not known. However, studies show that the following risk factors may increase the chance of developing this disease:
- Family history — first-degree relatives (mother, daughter, sister), especially if two or more have had the disease. A family history of breast or colon cancer also is associated with an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.
- Age — most ovarian cancers occur in women 50 years of age or older, with the highest risk in women older than 60.
- Non-childbearing — women who have never had children. In fact, the more children a woman has had, the less likely she is to develop ovarian cancer.
- Personal history — women who have had breast or colon cancer may be at greater risk.
- Obesity – women who are obese have a higher rate of death from ovarian cancer.
- Fertility drugs — drugs that cause women to ovulate may slightly increase a woman's risk.
- Talc — some studies suggest that women who have used talc in the genital area for many years may be at increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.
- Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) — some evidence suggests that women who use HRT after menopause may have a slightly increased risk of developing this disease.
How is ovarian cancer diagnosed?
Many times women with ovarian cancer have no symptoms or just mild symptoms until the disease is in an advanced stage. Ovarian cancer is difficult to diagnose and is often diagnosed after the disease is advanced. Some diagnostic exams and tests that may be useful are:
- Pelvic exam — includes feeling the uterus, vagina, ovaries, fallopian tubes, bladder and rectum to find any abnormality in their shape or size.
- Ultrasound — uses high-frequency sound waves. These waves are aimed at the ovaries and produce a pattern of echoes to create a picture (sonogram). Healthy tissues, fluid-filled cysts and tumors look different on this picture.
- CA-125 assay — a blood test used to measure the level of CA-125, a tumor marker that is often found in higher-than-normal amounts in the blood of women with ovarian cancer as well as other cancers.
- Lower Gastrointestinal series or barium enema — a series of X-rays of the colon and rectum. The pictures are taken after the patient is given an enema with a white, chalky solution containing barium. The barium outlines the colon and rectum making tumors or other abnormal areas easier to see.
- Computerized Axial Tomography (CAT) scan — a series of detailed pictures of the organs inside the body created by a computer linked to an X-ray machine.
- Biopsy — the removal of tissue for examination under a microscope. A definitive diagnosis of ovarian cancer requires surgery. The initial surgery has two purposes. First, to remove any cancer that exists (or as much as possible), including removing the ovaries and the uterus; and second, to sample tissues and surrounding lymph nodes to determine where the tumor has spread and the stage of the disease. The best prognosis for survival occur when all the cancer can be removed.
What are the treatment options for ovarian cancer?
After diagnosis, a doctor will suggest one or more options for treatment. The type of treatment depends on the type of cancer and the stage of the disease. If surgery has not been performed yet, the exact stage may not be known. The main treatments for ovarian cancer are surgery, chemotherapy and radiation or a combination of the three.
More information about ovarian cancer can be obtained by contacting:
National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute
The National Women’s Health Information Center, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
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