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Ovarian cancer is characterized by the abnormal and uncontrollable growth of cells within the ovaries, the egg-producing organs of the female reproduction system. Often, uncontrollable cell growth leads to the development of tumors, which are masses of irregular tissue. Tumors may be benign (noncancerous), malignant (cancerous) or borderline cancerous (low malignant potential). Tumors are further categorized by the cell type from which they arise:
Epithelial tumors start from the epithelial cells, which cover the outermost surface of the ovary. These account for the majority of ovarian tumors.
Germ cell tumors start from the germ cells, which are responsible for egg production.
Stromal tumors start from the cells responsible for the production of reproductive hormones estrogen and progesterone.
According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 21,980 new cases of Ovarian cancer were diagnosed in 2014. Ovarian cancer is the fifth most deadly cancer for women, placing after breast, colorectal, and pancreatic cancers. If caught early, ovarian cancer has a relatively high success rate. However, because of its relatively undisruptive symptoms, many cases are not discovered until they have progressed to a later stage, significantly decreasing the chances of successful survival. New developments in treatment and detection technologies in the last several decades have helped to increase the expected survival rate for ovarian cancers across the board.
Like most cancers, the exact causes of ovarian cancer have yet to be determined. Scientists believe that genetic mutations (whether inherited or acquired during a person’s lifetime) play a role in the abnormal cell division that leads to ovarian cancer. Researchers have also identified several risk factors associated with a woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer.
Research has shown that the following factors may be associated with a woman’s risk of ovarian cancer:
In order to arrive at an ovarian cancer diagnosis, your doctor will most likely:
Several imaging tests may be used by your doctors in order to aide in an ovarian cancer diagnosis. These include:
Many of the warning signs of ovarian cancer can also be caused by other conditions. Early stages of ovarian cancer often do not cause any symptoms, so it is important to visit your gynecologist regularly for check-ups. If you experience any of the following symptoms, make an appointment with your gynecologist as soon as possible. He or she will be able to determine whether or not your symptoms are indeed a result of ovarian cancer.
Warning signs of ovarian cancer include:
The prognosis for ovarian cancer largely depends on how early on the cancer is detected. The earlier ovarian cancer is detected, the more likely it is to respond to treatment. Unfortunately, ovarian cancer often does not show symptoms in the early stages. Only 15% of ovarian cancers are found at a localized (early) stage; 18% are found at a regional (more progressed) stage, and 61% are found at a distant stage (far advanced).
The five year survival rates for ovarian cancer are as followed:
Receiving a diagnosis of ovarian cancer can be a challenging experience. The following tips can help you live well through your diagnosis, treatment, and recovery process.
According to the National Cancer Institute, there is no single recommended screening routine for ovarian cancer because screening for the disease has not been proven to decrease the risk of death from the disease. Most doctors will, however, recommend that you visit a gynecologist regularly to check for any abnormalities in the reproductive system, including ovarian cancer. If your doctor suspects you may have ovarian cancer, he or she will most likely conduct a series of diagnostic tests.
There is no single way to prevent ovarian cancer. Keeping a normal body weight can help decrease your risk of ovarian cancer. Many women with the BRC1 or BRC2 genes, or who have a close relative with ovarian cancer, choose to take extra preventative measures to help decrease their risk of ovarian cancer. These include:
The following treatment methods are available for ovarian cancer:
Surgery. Surgical removal of the cancerous areas of the ovaries, fallopian tubes, and/or uterus is the most common form of treatment for ovarian cancer and is used to treat all types of ovarian cancer.
Epithelial cell ovarian cancer is more likely to spread than other cancer types, making the initial surgery especially important. Epithelial cell cancer surgeries are generally divided into two stages:
Staging, in which the ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, and omentum (layer of fatty tissue that lines the abdominal wall near the reproductive organs) are removed. This is done to stop the possible spread of the cancerous cells
Debulking. For more advanced cases of ovarian cancer, there may be tumors present on the colon or in the intestinal cavity. Debulking aims to remove as much of all the tumors as possible, leaving behind no tumors that are more than 1cm in diameter. This greatly increases the likelihood of survival after surgery.
For stromal and germ cell ovarian cancer, the main surgical goal is to remove all of the cancerous material (as with these kinds it is most often contained to a localized area). This may involve the removal of one or both ovaries, fallopian tubes, or the uterus.
Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy for ovarian cancer involves the intra-venous delivery of anti-cancer drugs that then travel throughout the body. Though each patient has an individualized chemo regimen based on her condition, the average chemotherapy will last 3 to 6 cycles of drug administration and rest periods. Chemotherapy has some serious side effects, most of which discontinue after treatment has finished.
Common side effects of chemotherapy include:
Radiation therapy. Radiation therapy uses concentrated x-rays to kill cancer cells. External beam radiation therapy is the most common form of radiation treatment for ovarian cancer, and involves x-rays being delivered from a machine outside the body in a procedure similar to a standard x-ray.
Hormone replacement therapy.Hormone replacement therapy uses administered dosages of hormones or hormone-inhibiting drugs to control the cancerous growth of cells. This type of therapy is most often used for the treatment of stromal tumors.
Targeted therapy. Targeted therapy uses specific biologic agents to target cancerous cells within the body. This is a relatively new form of treatment and research is still ongoing about its effectivity.
Because the traditional treatment for ovarian cancer (surgery, chemotherapy, etc.) can be hard on the body, many women seek alternative treatments. Though there is anecdotal evidence that supports the effectiveness of some alternative treatments, there is a limited amount of scientific research on these procedures. Consult with your doctor before choosing an alternative or complementary therapy to best asses your health risks and needs.
If you experience any of the following symptoms, call your doctor. These may be signs of ovarian cancer:
If you are undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer, call your doctor if you experience any of the following:
If you have received an ovarian cancer diagnosis, you probably have many questions for your doctor. You may want to write these questions down beforehand on a piece of paper and bring it to your appointment with you. This will help you remember to ask all of your questions while you are with your doctor.
Some questions you may want to ask include:
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