Ovarian cancer is one of the lesser known forms of female cancer, but it is no less devastating. Whether someone is recently diagnosed, or has a loved one with ovarian cancer, here they can learn all the essential information needed to understand this condition and battle it head on.
Ovarian Cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the ovaries. The ovaries are responsible for producing the ova (eggs) as well as being responsible for producing the reproductive hormones: estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. Women are nearly always born with two ovaries, but in some rare cases, abnormalities exist in which women are only born with one, though many of these women are unaware of the abnormality until a problem arises.
Each year, nearly 22,000 women are newly diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and nearly 14,000 women die. If the cancer is caught early, the long term outlook for women is very good. Unfortunately, the cancer is often not detected until it spreads to other pelvic organs. At that point, the cancer is very difficult to treat and is often fatal.
The awareness ribbon color for ovarian cancer is teal.
Unlike cervical cancer, which is caused by a virus, the cause of ovarian cancer is unclear. What is known is that the cancer cells begin as normal, healthy cells that acquire a genetic mutation. These cells begin to grow and multiply out of control, eventually forming tumors. If left untreated, these cells can break off and spread to other areas of the body, which is known as metastasis.
The type of cell where the cancer originates determines the type of cancer as well as the treatment and the prognosis.
- Epithelial Tumors: this is cancer that begins in the cells that form the outer layer of tissue of the ovary. This is the most common form of ovarian cancer.
- Germ Cell Tumors: this is the type of cancer that begins in the egg producing cells. This is the type of cancer that affects young women. Women of all ages can develop ovarian cancer, even teenagers.
- Stromal Tumors: this is the type of cancer that starts in the hormone producing tissue.
The symptoms associated with ovarian cancer are very general and not specific to ovarian cancer. This leads to the cancer often being misdiagnosed. Symptoms include;:
- Abdominal pressure
- Abdominal fullness
- Abdominal swelling or bloating
- Persistent indigestion, gas or nausea
- Changes in bowel habits, such as constipation
- Changes in urinary frequency, usually increased need to urinate
- Loss or decrease of appetite
- Increased abdominal girth (may notice that clothes are fitting tighter around waist)
- Persistent fatigue
- Pelvic discomfort or pain
- Low back pain
Someone with a family history of any type of reproductive cancer should speak with their doctor about their risk, especially if they exhibit any of the above symptoms. It’s better to be safe and get checked than to find out too late.
The treatment of ovarian cancer usually involves both surgery and chemotherapy. The surgery is often extensive and involves the removal of both ovaries, fallopian tubes, the uterus, the surrounding lymph nodes and a layer of the surrounding fatty tissue, called the omentum. The cancer often spreads to this tissue.
A less extensive form of surgery may be possible if the cancer was caught early enough. Those women with Stage I cancer may even be able to retain their ability to have children if only one ovary and fallopian tube needs to be removed.
During either surgery, the doctor will also remove as much of the cancer as possible from the abdominal cavity, a procedure called surgical debulking.
After surgery women will be started on chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is the use of medication that kills cancer. These medications are Paclitaxel (Taxol) and Cisplatin (Platinol). It can be administered intravenously (IV) or by injection directly into the abdomen. The amount of chemotherapy that will be necessary will be determined by the doctor based on the severity of each woman’s case.
Depending upon each case, radiation is also used, occasionally.
Like many other forms of cancer, the prognosis of women with ovarian cancer depends greatly upon how early the cancer was diagnosed. As with every other type of cancer, the earlier the diagnosis the better the chances of survival.
According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for those with Stage I cancer is over 90 percent. Of course this number decreases greatly as the cancer progresses, with those in Stage IV (terminal) being just 18 percent. It’s also important to note that many women who are ovarian cancer survivors live much longer than five years after their diagnosis, this is just the number that is used for compiling statistics.
As these numbers demonstrate early detection is absolutely the key to survival. If a woman thinks that there is a problem, she should see her doctor immediately and discuss her concerns. It’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to cancer.