Frequently Asked Questions About Ovarian Cancer

Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about ovarian cancer.

Q: What are the ovaries?

A: The ovaries are female reproductive organs. There is one small, almond-shaped ovary on each side of the uterus. An ovary releases an egg every month in a woman who is still having her period. The ovaries also make most of the female hormones, including estrogen and progesterone. These hormones control the development of certain parts of a female, like the breasts, body shape, and body hair. They also control the menstrual cycle and pregnancy.

Q: What is ovarian cancer?

A: Ovarian cancer grows from cells within the ovaries. However, not all tumors found in the ovaries are cancerous.

Q: What are the types of ovarian cancer?

A: These are the three main types of ovarian cancer:

  • Epithelial carcinoma is the most common kind of ovarian tumor. They make up about 85 to 90 percent of ovarian cancer cases. This tumor starts in the epithelium, which is the outer layer of cells in the ovaries.

  • Germ cell cancer starts in the cells that form eggs in the ovary. Less than 2 percent of ovarian cancers are germ cell cancers.

  • Stromal cell cancer starts in the stromal cells. These cells make up the connective tissue, which holds the ovaries together. They also make female hormones. Stromal cell cancer makes up only about 1 percent of all ovarian cancers.

Q: Who is at risk for ovarian cancer?

A: Certain factors can make one woman more likely to get ovarian cancer than another woman. These are called risk factors. But just because a woman has one or more risk factors does not mean she will get ovarian cancer.

Some risk factors are out of a woman's control and some risk factors are lifestyle choices, which can be controlled. Here are some of the possible risks for ovarian cancer:

  • Having two or more close relatives (mother or sister) who have had ovarian or breast cancer

  • Having had previous breast or colon cancer

  • Being older than age 55

  • Never having been pregnant

  • Being obese

  • Having used talcum powder on the genital area in the past

  • Using estrogen replacement therapy for more than 10 years

Q: What can a woman do to decrease her risk of ovarian cancer?

A: Every woman should know about her risk factors for ovarian cancer. Some cannot be changed, such as family history and age. But others can be. For instance, taking these actions may decrease a woman's risk:

  • Controlling weight

  • Using birth control pills for several years

  • Having the fallopian tubes tied, called tubal ligation

  • Having the uterus removed, called hysterectomy

Q: What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?

A: The symptoms of ovarian cancer in its early stages are often subtle and could be signs of any number of other problems. These are some of the possible symptoms of ovarian cancer:

  • Back pain

  • Abdominal discomfort, bloating, or swelling

  • Pelvic pain

  • Loss of appetite, indigestion, nausea, gas, or fullness even after eating small meals

  • Pain during intercourse

  • Changes in urination

  • Diarrhea, constipation, or frequent urination

  • Vaginal bleeding (rare) or irregular periods

  • Shortness of breath

  • Unintentional weight gain or loss

These symptoms are not specific to ovarian cancer; they may be signs of other problems. A woman with these symptoms should see her doctor.

Q: How do doctors diagnose ovarian cancer?

A: There are several ways to find out why a woman is having symptoms like those of ovarian cancer. The doctor will ask about her medical and family history and perform a physical exam, which includes a pelvic exam. The doctor feels the vagina, rectum, and lower abdomen for lumps. The history and physical examination alone cannot tell if a lump is ovarian cancer. Therefore, if a woman has a lump, she will need more tests such as those below. If they suggest that ovarian cancer is present, the doctor may order these tests:

  • Ultrasound

  • Blood tests to check certain protein levels

  • Biopsy

If any of these tests show signs of cancer, it's likely the doctor will do a surgical biopsy to remove suspicious areas and check for cancer.

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