Ovarian Cancer

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What are the ovaries?

The ovaries are female reproductive organs located in the pelvis. There are 2 of them — 1 on each side of the uterus. The ovaries produce eggs and the female hormones estrogen and progesterone. Estrogen and progesterone control the development of female body characteristics (for example, breasts, body shape and body hair) and regulate the menstrual cycle and pregnancy.

What is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer is a disease in which cancer starts in the cells of the ovary. There are 3 types of ovarian tumors, named for the tissue in which they are found:

  • Epithelial cell. These are cells that cover the surface of the ovary. Most of these tumors are benign (noncancerous) and account for most cases of ovarian cancer.

  • Germ cell. These are cells that form the eggs in the ovary.

  • Stromal cell. These cells form the structural tissue of the ovary and produce female hormones.

What is extra-ovarian primary peritoneal carcinoma (EOPPC)?

EOPPC is a cancer closely related to epithelial ovarian cancer. It occurs outside the ovary in the peritoneum, which is the lining of the abdomen (belly). Because it occurs outside the ovary, women who have had their ovaries removed can still develop this type of cancer.

EOPPC can mimic ovarian cancer in terms of symptoms and can also cause an increase in the CA-125 tumor marker. Treatment is similar to that for ovarian cancer and includes surgery and chemotherapy.

What causes ovarian cancer?

The cause of ovarian cancer is not yet known. An estimated 22,240 new cases of ovarian cancer are expected in the U.S. in 2013. Ovarian cancer is the ninth most common form of cancer among women.

What are risk factors for ovarian cancer?

The cause of ovarian cancer is unknown, but there are certain risk factors that indicate an increase in a woman's chance of developing ovarian cancer. The following have been suggested as risk factors for ovarian cancer:

  • Age (over the age of 55)

  • Obesity

  • Hormone replacement therapy. Some studies have suggested that women who use hormone replacement therapy after menopause may have a slightly increased risk of ovarian cancer.

  • Infertility (inability to become pregnant)

  • Personal history of breast or colon cancer

  • Family history. First-degree relatives (such as mother, daughter, sister) of a woman who has had ovarian cancer are at risk for developing the disease. The risk increases if 2 or more first-degree relatives have had ovarian cancer. A family history of breast or colon cancer is also associated with an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.

  • Certain fertility drugs

How can ovarian cancer be prevented?

Suggested preventive measures include the following:

  • Healthy diet (high in fruits, vegetables, grains, and low in saturated fat)

  • Staying at a healthy weight throughout life 

  • Birth control pills

  • Pregnancy and breastfeeding

  • Oophorectomy. Surgical removal of ovaries if you're at high risk for ovarian cancer.

Research studies have shown that certain genes are responsible for increasing the risk of ovarian and breast cancer. Genetic counseling can tell you whether you have 1 of these gene mutations. If your family history suggests that you may have 1 of these gene mutations, you might want to talk to your doctor about genetic testing.

What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?

The following are the most common symptoms of ovarian cancer. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • General discomfort in the lower abdomen, including any or all of the following:

    • Feeling swollen or bloated

    • A loss of appetite or a feeling of fullness even after a light meal

    • Gas, indigestion, and nausea

  • Diarrhea or constipation, or frequent urination caused by the growing tumor, which may press on nearby organs, such as the bowel or bladder

  • Feeling very tired all the time

  • Bleeding from the vagina

  • Buildup of fluid around the lungs, which may cause shortness of breath

If any of these symptoms occur almost daily or last a few weeks and are new, they should be reported to the doctor. In many cases, symptoms do not occur until the ovarian cancer is in an advanced stage, meaning it has spread beyond the ovary in which it started. The symptoms of ovarian cancer may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

How is ovarian cancer diagnosed?

Diagnosis includes a medical history and physical examination, including a pelvic examination to check the vagina, rectum, and lower abdomen for masses or growths. A Pap test may be done as part of the pelvic examination. The definitive diagnosis is made at the time of surgery. The doctor may also order other tests, such as:

  • Ultrasound. An imaging technique that uses sound waves to produce an image on a monitor of the abdominal organs, such as the uterus, liver, and kidneys.

  • Computed tomography (CT or CAT scan). A noninvasive diagnostic imaging procedure that uses a combination of X-rays and computer technology to produce horizontal, or axial, images (often called slices) of the body. The CT scan may indicate enlarged lymph nodes a possible sign of a spreading cancer or infection.

  • Lower gastrointestinal (GI) series. X-rays of the colon and rectum using a contrast dye called barium.

  • Intravenous pyelogram (IVP). X-rays of the kidneys and ureters, taken after the injection of a dye.

  • Blood test. To measure a substance in the blood called CA-125 (a tumor marker that is often found to be elevated in the blood of women with ovarian cancer). This test is more often used to monitor the progress of treatment than as a screening test since noncancer problems can cause it to be elevated.

  • Biopsy. A procedure in which tissue samples are removed from the ovary for examination under a microscope. This is done to see if cancer or other abnormal cells are present. The diagnosis of cancer is confirmed only by a biopsy.

Treatment for ovarian cancer

Specific treatment for ovarian cancer will be determined by your doctor based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of the disease

  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the disease

  • Your opinion or preference

Ovarian cancer may be treated with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or a combination of treatments.

  • Surgery. Surgery for ovarian cancer may include:

    • Salpingo-oophorectomy. Surgery to remove the fallopian tubes and ovaries.

    • Hysterectomy. Surgical removal of the uterus.

    • Pelvic lymph node dissection. Removal of some lymph nodes from the pelvis.

  • Chemotherapy. This is the use of anticancer drugs to treat cancerous cells. In most cases, chemotherapy works by interfering with the cancer cell's ability to grow or reproduce. Different groups of drugs work in different ways to fight cancer cells. The oncologist will recommend a treatment plan for each individual. Usually, chemotherapy is given intravenously. Another way to treat ovarian cancer is through intraperitoneal (IP) chemotherapy. This type of chemotherapy is given directly into the abdomen through a long, thin tube called a catheter. It is only used for women with ovarian cancer that has spread to the inside of the abdomen. 

  • Radiation therapy.  Radiation therapy is usually not used for ovarian cancer. Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells and to shrink tumors. There are 2 ways to deliver radiation therapy:

    • External radiation (external beam therapy). A treatment that precisely sends high levels of radiation directly to the cancer cells. Since radiation is used to kill cancer cells and to shrink tumors, special shields may be used to protect the tissue surrounding the treatment area. Radiation treatments are painless and usually last a few minutes.

    • Internal radiation (brachytherapy, implant radiation). Radiation is given inside the body as close to the cancer as possible. In some cases, a treatment called intraperitoneal radiation therapy is used. A radioactive liquid is given through a catheter into the abdomen. (Internal radiation is very rarely used to treat ovarian cancer.)

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