Ovarian cancer is one of the least common types of cancer to afflict women. Only 3% of all women diagnosed with cancer have ovarian cancer.
Yet it is one of the most dangerous cancers to women. It’s definitely the most life-threatening of all reproductive cancers, causing more deaths among women than any other cancer.
But what is ovarian cancer? Who is at risk for developing it? How does it progress? And more importantly, what is being done to better understand this cancer?
There is a lot to learn about ovarian cancer. The medical community is still uncovering information that may help with treatment and screenings. And while research is ongoing, creating new opportunities for early diagnosis screenings and treatments, what the public knows is that women are still dying from this disease at an accelerated rate. And that has to stop.
What is Ovarian Cancer
Cancer occurs when cells in the body become damaged or grow out of control. Cancers are named primarily for the part of the body that they affect. For ovarian cancer, this is the ovaries.
Women over the age of 40 or who are post-menopausal are the most likely to be affected with ovarian cancer. However, young women and teenagers have also been diagnosed, making it difficult to pinpoint what causes ovarian cancer.
Ovarian cancer affects a woman’s reproductive system, namely the fallopian tubes and the ovaries. When ovarian cancer is detected early, this cancer never spread further than the reproductive system. Unfortunately, most ovarian cancer cases are not discovered until advanced stages. This means this cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
Cancer cells affect the types of cells that make up the reproductive system. These are the epithelial, germ, and stromal cells. Each type of cell can be invaded by cancer. The result is a tumor which can be benign or cancerous.
If a tumor is cancerous, then the first stage of cancer has begun. If left untreated, ovarian cancer can progress and leave the reproductive system, invading other organs. This cancer is fatal if no treatment is administered.
Causes of Ovarian Cancer
No one knows exactly what causes ovarian cancer. This form of cancer does not seem to have a causality associated with it, and no research done has been able to pinpoint any action or genetic marker that accurately predicts a woman’s chance of developing ovarian cancer.
Theories have suggested that male hormones could be one cause, though it is not known how that would happen. Another theory claims that cancer-causing substances could enter through the vagina and make its way into the uterus. Again, these theories have not been proven.
But there are the risk factors associated with a higher chance of developing ovarian cancer. These are important factors to take into consideration, especially for any woman who has been dealing with the symptoms most often linked to ovarian cancer.
Women at High Risk
One strong risk factor is age. Women who are at high risk of developing ovarian cancer tend to be over the age of 40. Most cases are diagnosed in women over the age of 50.
Another risk factor is the BRCA gene mutation. Women with mutations in either BRCA1 or BRCA2 are at an increased risk for ovarian cancer.
Having a family history of reproductive cancers, such as cervical cancer or breast cancer, within a generation of a woman increases the likelihood of her chances of developing ovarian cancer. Also, women with Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry are also at risk.
The risk factors are tied into a woman’s genetic makeup and her family history. This is why a woman’s health history, along with the family’s health history, is crucial when going in for annual gynecological exam.
(RELATED: BRCA1 Gene Mutation: triples women’s risk of getting ovarian cancer)
Reducing the Risk
There are women who are at risk of developing ovarian cancer. The good news is that there are ways to combat that risk.
For women who have BRCA gene mutations and a family history of reproductive cancer, tubal ligation or a hysterectomy can nearly wipe out the chances of ever getting ovarian cancer. Because the ovaries are removed from the body, cancer will not be able to nest there.
Another way to reduce risk is to take oral contraceptives, or birth control. Scientists believe that the reproductive cycle is key in the development of ovarian cancer. This means that using birth control for years is thought to decrease or alter the cycle. This leaves cancer cells with no place to settle in the system.
For women of childbearing age, pregnancy and breastfeeding reduce the risk of ovarian cancer. It is not recommended that a woman become pregnant to reduce her chances of developing cancer, but studies have shown that women who have children and breastfeed them can reduce their chances by up to 60%. This has even been proven true for women with genetic mutations.
Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer
Signs of ovarian cancer are vague. In fact, the list of symptoms can point doctors to other diseases or conditions. An ovarian cancer diagnosis may not even cross their minds.
Because ovarian cancer symptoms progress over time, a woman — or her doctor — may dismiss them. She may even be misdiagnosed. So it is important for every woman to pay attention to the signals her body is sending her.
Among the most prevalent symptoms are bloating, abdominal pain, changes in menstrual cycle (if a woman is still ovulating), and back pain. For a woman who still has periods, they may seem like part of the menstrual cycle.
However, these symptoms don’t go away after a menstrual cycle finishes. Ovarian cancer symptoms are constant. If a woman has these symptoms, a visit to the doctor should be her first priority. She should also ask the doctor about her risk of ovarian cancer, if she has any.
If a woman chooses to ignore these symptoms, they may worsen. Vaginal bleeding and discharge between periods will occur, back pain will become constant, and fluid may begin to collect around her abdomen.
These are advanced ovarian cancer symptoms. It means that this cancer is spreading, and could be affecting the liver or other organs. At the most advanced stages of ovarian cancer, women have symptoms that include digestive issues, rapid weight gain, shortness of breath, and a constant feeling of fatigue.
These are not symptoms that should be dismissed. Women who have any combination of these symptoms should visit their doctor and inquire about a screening for ovarian cancer. Catching ovarian cancer as early as possible will greatly increase the chances of a full recovery.
(RELATED: Ovarian Cancer Symptoms: Know the symptoms and how they progress for early diagnosis)
Ovarian Cancer Stages
Cancer is a progressive disease. This means that it does not stay localized in the part of the body that it originated from. It will spread, attacking other organs, which will systematically shut down the body if left undiagnosed or untreated.
Ovarian cancer is no different. It begins in the ovaries, but can spread all over a woman’s body. In some cases, it can even spread to the brain or lungs.
There are four stages of ovarian cancer. Each one presents its own treatment options. Early detection is best, but most ovarian cancer diagnoses happen in stage 2.
Stage 1 ovarian cancer is the first stage. This is when this cancer is located in one or both ovaries, but has not moved further into the reproductive system.
Stage 2 ovarian cancer is a progression. This cancer is no longer just in the ovaries, but have spread to the outer lining of the ovaries and may affect the fallopian tubes.
Stage 3 ovarian cancer is an advancement of this cancer. While it is still localized to the abdominal cavity, cancer cells have begun to infect the lining of the abdominal cavity, and may have spread to other organs found in the groin area.
Stage 4 ovarian cancer is the most advanced stage of this disease. This cancer has spread into the body, affecting the lungs, brain, skin, and other major organs.
(RELATED: Ovarian Cancer Stages: progression, identifying markers and 5 year survival rates)
Tests for ovarian cancer are unpredictable at best, leaving many women in the dark about a possible diagnosis. However, for women at high risk of ovarian cancer, or for women who are exhibiting symptoms, a screening process is available.
Annual visits to a gynecologist include a pelvic examination, which is where most screening processes for ovarian cancer begin. A doctor will physically exam a woman’s uterus for abnormalities and tenderness. If an abnormality is detected, a transvaginal ultrasound may be ordered.
A transvaginal ultrasound paints a picture of a woman’s uterus for doctors. It works the same as a pregnancy ultrasound, although this procedure is done by using a wand inserted into a woman’s vagina. The scan will show doctors if there are any tumors or masses that may need to be examined further.
From this stage, any abnormality will have to be examined with either the use of a battery of x-rays or a CA-125 blood test. Blood tests of this nature indicate ovarian cancer markers, but aren’t necessarily proof-positive that a woman has ovarian cancer.
For a true diagnosis, doctors will perform a biopsy — a surgery that gives a pathologist a tissue sample from a tumor. The sample will give doctors a better idea if the tumor is cancerous. If it is, then a woman will receive an ovarian cancer diagnosis.
(RELATED: Ovarian Cancer Diagnosis: know when to get tested and how screening works)
Treatment for ovarian cancer varies, depending the size of the tumor and the progression of this cancer into the body. Surgery, targeted therapies, and chemotherapy are the most commonly used forms of treatment for ovarian cancer.
Surgery is done right after the diagnosis, or even as part of the biopsy. Removing this cancerous tumor is important to help stem this cancer progression. It is rare that surgery is not performed, and this usually occurs when the woman is so far advanced in ovarian cancer that the operation could further destroy her immune system.
Chemotherapy for ovarian cancer is used a complementary treatment to surgery. The chemotherapy course, which can last for several months, is done after surgery to slow the progression of this cancer cells.
Targeted therapies are usually administered for advanced stages of ovarian cancer. They are drugs that have been specially formulated to target only cancer cells, and therefore are more intense versions of chemotherapy.
Radiotherapy is rarely used. Sometimes, however, it is used as palliative radiotherapy to ease discomfort and pain brought on by more advanced stages of ovarian cancer.
These treatments are used together to create an effective recovery for women. Although ovarian cancer still claims lives, important research is being done to curb this.
(RELATED: Ovarian Cancer Treatment: not all treatments are the same; see how each affects a plan)
Ovarian Cancer Support and Awareness
Ovarian cancer has a growing movement of support. Women all around the world are coming together to share their stories, talk about their recovery process, and to advocate for more ovarian cancer research.
The call for awareness is so strong that September has been named Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. There is even a teal ovarian cancer ribbon, worn by survivors and loved ones alike.
Ovarian cancer awareness focuses on the statistics — about half of all women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer don’t survive five years after treatment. It is the most deadly reproductive cancer known to women, but fewer than 20% of all women are diagnosed with it at stage 1 of ovarian cancer.
But the ovarian cancer statistics don’t scare the survivors. They work hard to ensure that all women know what to look for when concerned about ovarian cancer. And they share their stories of survival, giving all women hope.
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Learning about ovarian cancer can lead women to know when to look for symptoms and what to do if they are diagnosed. It can also lead to amazing support groups and organizations who focus their work on finding not only treatments for ovarian cancer, but a way to cure it for good.