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Receiving a diagnosis of ovarian cancer is difficult and life changing. Fortunately, medical advances have made treatments more effective. Women diagnosed in the earliest stages have a five-year survival rate of nearly 93 percent, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). Until recently, ovarian cancer was known as a "silent killer" because it usually wasn't found until it had spread to other areas of your body. But new evidence shows that most women may have symptoms even in the early stages, and awareness of symptoms may hopefully lead to earlier detection. Early detection is important; still, only about 20 percent of ovarian cancers are found before tumor growth has spread beyond the ovaries. Your chance of surviving ovarian cancer is better if the cancer is found early.
Causes of Ovarian Cancer
Women have two ovaries, one on either side of the uterus. The ovaries — each about the size of an almond — produce eggs (ova) as well as the female sex hormones estrogen and progesterone. An ovarian tumor is a growth of abnormal cells that may be either noncancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant). Although benign tumors are made up of abnormal cells, these cells don't spread to other body tissues (metastasize). Ovarian cancer cells metastasize in one of two ways. Generally, they spread directly to adjacent tissue or organs in the pelvis and abdomen. They can also spread through your bloodstream or lymph channels to other parts of your body.
Three basic types of ovarian tumors exist, designated by where they form in the ovary. They include:
The exact cause of ovarian cancer remains unknown. Some researchers believe it has to do with the tissue-repair process that follows the monthly release of an egg through a tiny tear in an ovarian follicle (ovulation) during a woman's reproductive years. The formation and division of new cells at the rupture site may set up a situation in which genetic errors occur. Others propose that the increased hormone levels before and during ovulation may stimulate the growth of abnormal cells.
Signs & Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer
Symptoms of ovarian cancer are nonspecific and mimic those of many other more common conditions, including digestive and bladder disorders. A woman with ovarian cancer may be diagnosed with another condition before finally learning she has cancer. Common misdiagnoses include irritable bowel syndrome, stress and depression. The key seems to be persistent or worsening signs and symptoms. With most digestive disorders, symptoms tend to come and go, or they occur in certain situations or after eating certain foods. With ovarian cancer, there's typically little fluctuation — symptoms are constant and gradually worsen. Recent studies have shown that women with ovarian cancer are more likely than are other women to consistently experience the following symptoms:
Additional signs and symptoms that women with ovarian cancer may experience include:
Diagnosis of Ovarian Cancer
A healthcare provider may perform the following tests to determine if a woman has an ovarian cyst or to help characterize the type of cyst that is present:
Treatments of Ovarian Cancer
Treatment of ovarian cancer usually involves a combination of surgery and chemotherapy.
In most cases, you'll want to have a gynecologic oncologist perform ovarian cancer surgery because they often have more training and experience with this type of operation. Generally, women with ovarian cancer require an extensive operation that includes removing both ovaries, fallopian tubes, and the uterus as well as nearby lymph nodes and a fold of fatty abdominal tissue known as the omentum, where ovarian cancer often spreads. During this procedure, your surgeon also removes as much cancer as possible from your abdomen (surgical debulking). Ideally, less than a total of 1 cubic centimeter of tumor matter remains in your abdominal cavity after surgery (optimal debulking). This may involve removing part of your intestines. In addition, your surgeon will take samples of tissue and fluid from your abdomen to examine for cancer cells. This evaluation is critical in identifying the stage of your disease and determining if you need additional therapy. If you want to preserve the option to have children and if your tumor is discovered early, your surgeon may be able to remove only the involved ovary and its fallopian tube. But, subsequent chemotherapy may cause infertility. However, in some cases, it is possible to successfully bear children after treatment. Be sure to discuss your desire to have children with your doctor.
After surgery, you'll most likely be treated with chemotherapy - drugs designed to kill any remaining cancer cells. The initial regimen for ovarian cancer includes the combination of carboplatin (Paraplatin) and paclitaxel (Taxol) injected into the bloodstream (intravenous administration). Clinical trials have found that this combination is effective, though researchers are continually looking for ways to improve on it. A more intensive regimen has recently been shown to improve survival in women with advanced ovarian cancer by combining standard intravenous chemotherapy with chemotherapy injected directly into the abdominal cavity through a catheter placed at the time of the initial operation. This intra-abdominal infusion exposes hard-to-reach cancer cells to higher levels of chemotherapy than can be reached intravenously. Side effects — including abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting — may leave many women unable to complete a full course of treatment or others to forego treatment entirely. But even an incomplete course of this treatment may help women live longer. Other treatments being explored include new chemotherapy drugs, vaccines, gene therapy and immunotherapy, which boosts the immune system to help combat cancer. The newest option, if standard chemotherapy fails, is a drug called bevacizumab (Avastin). It works by disrupting the blood supply to the tumor, possibly causing it to shrink. The most serious side effect associated with bevacizumab is bowel perforation, which occurs in about 7 percent of people taking it.
While a mainstay in the treatment of some other cancers, radiation generally isn't considered effective for ovarian cancer. Sometimes, your doctor may recommend external beam radiation therapy (EBCT) to treat the symptoms of advanced cancer.
Prevention of Ovarian Cancer
Several factors appear to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer, including:
When to seek Medical Advice
See your doctor if you have swelling, bloating, pressure or pain in your abdomen or pelvis that lasts for more than a few weeks. If you've already seen a doctor and received a diagnosis other than ovarian cancer, but you're not getting relief from the treatment, schedule a follow-up visit with your doctor or get a second opinion. Make sure that a pelvic exam is a part of your evaluation. If you have a history of ovarian cancer or a strong history of breast cancer in your family, strongly consider seeing a doctor trained to detect and care for ovarian cancer patients so that you can talk about screening, genetic testing and treatment options while you are disease-free.
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