Ovarian Cancer

What are the ovaries?

The ovaries are female reproductive organs located in the pelvis. There are two of them - one 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 (i.e., breasts, body shape and body hair) and regulate the menstrual cycle and pregnancy.

What is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer is a disease in which malignant cells are found in an ovary. There are three 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). However, epithelial ovarian cancer accounts for most ovarian cancer cases.

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

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

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

Extra-ovarian primary peritoneal carcinoma (EOPPC) is a rare cancer closely related to epithelial ovarian cancer. It occurs outside the ovary in the peritoneum, which is the lining of the abdomen. 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 21,880 new cases of ovarian cancer were expected in the US in 2010. 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 two 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)

  • Birth control pills

  • Pregnancy and breastfeeding

  • Hysterectomy - surgical removal of the uterus.

  • Tubal ligation - surgery to block the fallopian tubes to prevent conception.

  • Oophorectomy - surgical removal of ovaries.

Research studies have shown that certain genes are responsible for increasing the risk of ovarian and breast cancer. Genetic counseling can predict whether you are likely to have one of these gene mutations. If your family history suggests that you may have one of these gene mutations, you might want to talk to your physician 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/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

  • Pain during sex

  • Weight loss

  • 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

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

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