Ovarian cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer in women. It is usually observed in women who are menopausal (over 50 years), though there are some rare cases of younger women developing ovarian cancer.
What are the Ovaries?
The female reproductive system has two sets of ovaries on either side of the uterus. The ovaries house ova, or eggs, that are released every menstrual cycle for fertilization. One ovum is released every cycle. The ovaries are almond-sized and are also responsible for the production and release of the hormones estrogen and progesterone.
What Causes Ovarian Cancer?
Unfortunately, there are no specific factors or causes that scientists can point out as the cause of ovarian cancer. However, there are certain factors that have been shown to contribute to the development of cancer.
When any cell becomes cancerous, it means that the cell’s DNA has an anomaly. This error or mutation causes the cell to multiply and grow quickly, which causes a tumor. This tumor then breaks off and spreads to other parts of the body. The tumor cells thrive, while healthy cells die.
What are the Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer?
Ovarian cancer symptoms are easy to miss since they can be mistaken as other conditions. However, it is important that you check for the symptoms, as early detection is extremely important for successful treatment. The early ovarian cancer symptoms include:
- Difficulty eating
- Increased need to urinate
- Increased frequency of urination
- Abnormal bloating
- Abnormal feeling of fullness after eating
Some other ovarian cancer symptoms you should check for are:
- Extreme tiredness or Fatigue
- Back pain
- Upset stomach
- Pain during sex
- Changes in a woman’s period, likes irregular bleeding or heavier bleeding than normal
- Belly (abdominal) swelling with weight loss
What are the Types of Ovarian Cancer?
The type of ovarian cancer is defined by which type of cell it begins from. There are three types of ovarian cancer. These include:
- Epithelial – This is one of the most common forms of ovarian cancer. It begins on the tissue that covers the ovaries. About 90% of all ovarian cancer patients have this type of cancer.
- Germ Cells – These cells are where the ova are produced. This is a rare form of ovarian cancer and is mostly seen in younger women.
- Stromal – These cells are responsible for the production of hormones. Tumors of the stromal cells account for around 7% of all ovarian tumors.
What are the Risk Factors for Ovarian Cancer?
The risk factors for developing ovarian cancer include:
- Family history – Any woman who has two or more close family members with ovarian cancer is at a higher risk of developing the same.
- Older age – Ovarian cancer is more common in women above the age of 50 years.
- Gene mutations – Certain inherited gene mutations can put you at a higher risk of ovarian cancer. These mutations also increase the risk of breast cancer.
- Estrogen HRT – Long-term hormone replacement therapy of estrogen, particularly in large doses, can increase your risk of ovarian cancer.
- Age of menstruation and menopause – Women who begin menstruating at an earlier age, or start menopause at an older age are at a higher risk.
How is Ovarian Cancer Diagnosed?
Unfortunately, there are no regular screening tests for ovarian cancer. Since the ovaries are located deep in the abdomen, you or your doctor will not be able to feel any tumor. This is why it is imperative that you screen yourself for ovarian cancer symptoms, and bring any recurring issues up with your doctor.
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Your doctor might want to conduct a pelvic examination to check for any irregularities. If the tumor has grown large, then they are able to feel it press against the bladder or rectum. Some other tests your doctor might ask for include:
- Abdominal and Pelvic Ultrasound: This imaging test will allow your doctor to see if there are any growths on your ovaries. However, this test cannot determine if the tumor is cancerous.
- Transvaginal Ultrasound: This test is very similar to the pelvic ultrasound. It uses sound waves to detect any tumors in your reproductive organs.
- Abdominal CT Scan: A dye is used to provide images of the organs in your abdomen, including your reproductive organs and ovaries.
- Blood Test: A blood test might be done to determine the levels of cancer antigen 125, which is a biomarker for cancer.
- Biopsy: If a tumor or irregular growth is detected, then a small sample from it might be removed to determine if it is cancerous.
It is important to note that only a biopsy can confirm if you have ovarian cancer.
What are the Stages of Ovarian Cancer?
The stage of cancer is an indicator of how far cancer has progressed through the body. There are four broad stages of ovarian cancer:
- Stage 1A – The cancer is limited to a single ovary.
- Stage 1B – The cancer has spread to both the ovaries.
- Stage 1C – The cancer cells are found outside the ovaries.
In this stage, the cancer would have spread to the other organs in the pelvic region.
- Stage 2A – The cancer has spread to the fallopian tubes and the uterus.
- Stage 2B – The cancer has spread to the bladder and rectum.
- Stage 3A – The cancer has spread to the lining of the abdomen, and the abdominal lymph nodes
- Stage 3B – The visible cancer cells measure under 2 centimeters.
- Stage 3C – Cancer cells measuring ¾ inch are found outside the spleen and liver.
- Stage 4A – The cancer cells are found in the fluid around the lungs.
- Stage 4B – The cancer cells are found in the spleen and liver, and sometimes even in the brain.
How Is Ovarian Cancer Treated?
Ovarian cancer treatment depends on the type and the stage of the cancer of the patient. Most women who have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer will require some type of surgery to remove the tumor as a part of their treatment plan.
Surgical treatment for ovarian cancer depends heavily on the type of cancer. In the case of epithelial ovarian cancer, the staging of the cancer is crucial for the treatment plan. Most women with epithelial ovarian cancer will need hysterectomies, where the uterus is removed, accompanied by the removal of the fallopian tubes and ovaries. However, if the cancer is detected early enough, and the woman is of child-birthing age, then your doctor can probably remove the tumor without removing the reproductive organs.
An important aspect of surgical treatment for ovarian cancer is debulking. This refers to the removal of all cancerous growths that are more than 1cm in size. This improves the prognosis of the patient considerably.
Stromal and germ cell ovarian cancer surgical treatment is focused on the removal of the cancerous tumor. Your doctor will rely on reliable imaging tests to detect the location, and the extent of the cancerous tumors.
Radiation therapy involves the use of high-energy x-ray particles to destroy the cancer cells. However, this therapy is not very effective against ovarian cancer and is usually not recommended for most patients.
Chemotherapy is the treatment of cancer using drugs. It is usually used to destroy any remaining cancer cells after surgery or to shrink a particularly large cancerous tumor to make its removal easier during surgery.
Unfortunately, most cases of ovarian cancer are detected only once it has spread through the pelvis and the abdomen. Thus, it is imperative that you check for ovarian cancer symptoms, and get the necessary and timely medical attention to avoid complications.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
- Can I die from ovarian cancer?
Ovarian cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer in women. Depending on how early the cancer is detected, your outlook and prognosis will change. The short-term prognosis of ovarian cancer patients is very good, and with regular chemotherapy, even long-term survival is significantly extended.
- What is the first sign of ovarian cancer?
Abnormal abdominal bloating and distension is one of the first few signs of ovarian cancer. If you or your loved ones are worried about ovarian cancer, then talk to your doctor about your concerns. It is better to catch this disease at the early stages, than in its later forms.
- How fast does ovarian cancer spread?
Ovarian cancer is one of the more aggressive forms of cancer. It spreads quicker than breast cancer. It can only be a matter of months as the cancer progresses from one stage to the next.
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