At a glance
- Ovarian cancer causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system.
- But when ovarian cancer is found in its early stages, treatment is most effective.
- Ovarian cancer often causes signs and symptoms, so it is important to pay attention to your body and know what is normal for you.
- Symptoms include pressure or pain in the abdomen, pelvis, back, or legs, a swollen or bloated abdomen, nausea, indigestion, gas, constipation, or diarrhea, feeling very tired all the time.
- Symptoms may be caused by something other than cancer, but the only way to know is to see your doctor, nurse, or other health care professional.
- Risk factors include family history of ovarian, breast, uterine, colorectal cancer; personal history of any of those cancers; age more than 55; never pregnant; Menopausal hormone therapy (estrogen without progesterone) for 10 years or more.
- Early detection increases the positive results of treatment.
Who Gets Ovarian Cancer?
All women are at risk for ovarian cancer, but older women are more likely to get the disease than younger women. About 90% of women who get ovarian cancer are older than 40 years of age, with the greatest number of cases occurring in women aged 60 years or older.
Each year, approximately 20,000 women in the United States get ovarian cancer. Among women in the United States, ovarian cancer is the eighth most common cancer and the fifth leading cause of cancer death, after lung and bronchus, breast, colorectal, and pancreatic cancers. Ovarian cancer causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system, but it accounts for only about 3% of all cancers in women. When ovarian cancer is found in its early stages, treatment is most effective.
Ovarian cancer is any cancerous growth that may occur in different parts of the ovary. While ovarian cancer accounts for fewer deaths than breast cancer, it is estimated that in 2010, nearly 21,880 new cases and 13,850 deaths may occur from ovarian cancer in USA.
Women have two ovaries that are located in the pelvis, one on each side of the uterus. The ovaries make female hormones and produce eggs. After menopause, ovaries stop releasing eggs and make far lower levels of hormones.
Cancer is a class of diseases characterized by out-of-control cell growth. Usually our cells divide and multiply only when old and dying ones need to be replaced. However, the controls that regulate when a cell divides as well as when a cell should die sometimes become faulty. This may result in cells not dying when they should, while additional cells are still being added – an uncontrolled accumulation of cells. Eventually a mass of cells is formed – a tumor.
Tumors can be benign or malignant.
- Benign tumors are rarely life-threatening.
- Generally, benign tumors can be removed. They usually do not grow back.
- Benign tumors do not invade the tissues around them.
- Cells from benign tumors do not spread to other parts of the body.
- Malignant tumors are generally more serious than benign tumors. They may be life-threatening.
- Malignant tumors often can be removed. But sometimes they grow back.
- Malignant tumors can invade and damage nearby tissues and organs.
- Cells from malignant tumors can spread to other parts of the body.
When a tumor manages to spread to other parts of the body and grows, invading and destroying other healthy tissues, it is said to have metastasized. This process itself is called metastasis, and the result is a serious condition that is extremely hard to treat.
An ovarian cyst may be found on the surface of an ovary or inside it. A cyst contains fluid.
Sometimes it contains solid tissue too. Most ovarian cysts are benign (not cancer). Most ovarian cysts go away with time. Sometimes, a cyst does not go away and gets larger. Tests are done to make sure that the cyst is not cancer.
Ovarian cancer can invade, shed, or spread to other organs:
- Invade: A malignant ovarian tumor can grow and invade organs next to the ovaries, such as the fallopian tubes and uterus.
- Shed: Cancer cells can shed (break off) from the main ovarian tumor. Shedding into the abdomen may lead to new tumors forming on the surface of nearby organs and tissues. The doctor may call these seeds or implants.
- Spread: Cancer cells can spread through the lymphatic system to lymph nodes in the pelvis, abdomen, and chest. Cancer cells may also spread through the bloodstream to organs such as the liver and lungs.
A risk factor is something that may increase the chance of developing a disease. Studies have found the following risk factors for ovarian cancer:
- Family history of cancer: Women who have a mother, daughter, or sister with ovarian cancer have an increased risk of the disease. Also, women with a family history of cancer of the breast, uterus, colon, or rectum may also have an increased risk of ovarian cancer.
- Personal history of cancer: Women who have had cancer of the breast, uterus, colon, or rectum have a higher risk of ovarian cancer.
- Age over 55: Most women are over age 55 when diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
- Never pregnant: Older women who have never been pregnant have an increased risk of ovarian cancer.
- Menopausal hormone therapy: Some studies have suggested that women who take estrogen without progesterone for 10 or more years may have an increased risk of ovarian cancer.
Having a risk factor does not mean that a woman will get ovarian cancer. Most women who have risk factors do not get ovarian cancer. On the other hand, women who do get the disease often have no known risk factors, except for growing older.