What is ovarian cancer?

Doctor advising woman Ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer originates in the ovaries, which are part of the female reproductive system. Responsible for producing eggs, the ovaries also provide the body with hormones such as estrogen and progesterone. Not all ovarian tumors are cancerous. Three main types of ovarian tumors exist, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).

  • Epithelial tumors are the most common type of ovarian tumor. They begin in the cells of the ovary’s outer surface. Some epithelial tumors are benign. These tend to grow slowly and do not pose a life-threatening risk. However, malignant epithelial ovarian tumors are the most prevalent and dangerous.
  • Germ cell tumors originate in the ovary’s egg-producing cells.
  • Stromal tumors begin in cells that create hormones and keep the ovary intact. The ACS reports that ovarian cancer is the ninth leading cancer diagnosis in women (excluding non-melanoma skin cancers), but ranks fifth in cancer-related deaths.

Causes

There isn’t one definitive cause of ovarian cancer. On the contrary, a number of risk factors are thought to contribute to the disease. According to the ACS, some risk factors are known to increase the likelihood of developing ovarian cancer:

  • Age (ovarian cancer is most prevalent in women over 63)
  • Obesity
  • Not having children (with each full-term pregnancy a woman experiences, the lower her risk for ovarian cancer. The ACS reports that breastfeeding might lower this risk even more.)
  • Not using birth control pills (women on “the pill” are less likely to develop ovarian cancer in their lifetime)
  • Certain fertility drugs (specifically clomiphene citrate)
  • Not having your “tubes tied” (women who’ve had a tubal ligation may be at a lower risk for ovarian cancer)
  • Taking male hormones
  • Some estrogen therapy and hormone replacement therapy
  • Family history of ovarian cancer
  • Genetic mutations (the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations may increase the risk for breast and ovarian cancer)
  • History of breast cancer
  • Poor diet
  • Smoking/drinking alcohol

Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer can be difficult to detect for a number of reasons. In many cases, its symptoms mirror those of other common health conditions. Secondly, the ovaries are located quite deeply within the abdomen. According to the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, the most common symptoms associated with ovarian cancer include:

  • Bloating
  • Pelvic pain/pain in the abdomen
  • Feeling full quickly after eating
  • Frequent urination
  • Fatigue
  • Indigestion
  • Back pain
  • Pain during sex
  • Constipation
  • Changes in menstruation

Treatment

Ovarian cancer can be treated in a variety of ways. Surgery is the most common treatment, according to the ACS.

  • Surgery: An important part of the surgical process is known as staging, which helps doctors understand how advanced the cancer is. In most cases, the reproductive organs (including the ovaries, uterus and fallopian tubes) are removed and tested for cancer cells. The second component of surgical intervention involves what’s known as debulking. This refers to clearing out the body of any tumors that are larger than one centimeter, according to the ACS. This may involve removing parts of the colon, bladder, pancreas or other organs.
  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is usually administered in a systemic way, meaning that multiple cancer-fighting medications circulate throughout the entire body. Side effects often include nausea and hair loss. According to the ACS, chemo is often provided in cycles every three to four weeks.
  • Hormone therapy: In some cases, hormones may be used to fight cancer. However, this approach is not as common when treating epithelial ovarian cancer.
  • Targeted therapies: This treatment approach is considered less damaging to a person’s healthy cells than chemotherapy or radiation. Targeted therapies, which come with fewer side effects, attack the way in which cancer cells divide and proliferate. This type of therapy is widely studied by researchers. Interfering with cellular processes is at the heart of targeted therapies.
  • Radiation: Radiation works by killing cancer cells through the delivery of high-energy particles. The ACS reports that radiation is rarely used as a primary treatment for ovarian cancer.

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