Ovarian cancer facts and risks
Receiving a diagnosis of ovarian cancer may be scary and overwhelming. Women with ovarian cancer must cope with a new reality. Their families may be equally impacted.
Ovarian cancer is the second most common cancer of the female reproductive tract (uterine cancer is the first.) It accounts for about 3% of all cancers among women-about one in 57 women in the US will develop this cancer. Most women with ovarian cancer are over the age of 50. Much progress has been made in treating this cancer thanks to recent studies and the identification of certain symptoms.
What is it?
Ovarian cancer is a disease that results from the abnormal growth of cells in the ovaries; two almond sized and shaped organs on each side of the uterus. Ovaries produce eggs and female hormones and are only found in women. Sometimes this abnormal cell growth forms a mass or tumor. Tumors may be benign or malignant. Malignant tumors that begin in the ovaries are called ovarian cancer. Cells in these tumors can grow rapidly and can spread to other parts of the body.
Early detection and symptoms
The sooner ovarian cancer is detected, the better a woman's chance for recovery. Many times there are no symptoms or only mild symptoms until the disease is advanced. Women diagnosed with ovarian cancer say the following are persistent symptoms:
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
- Abdominal swelling
- Difficulty eating and/or feeling full very quickly
- Urinary urgency/frequency
If you have these symptoms almost daily for more than 2-3 weeks you should see your gynecologist or other doctor.
Other symptoms include:
- Pain with intercourse
- Menstrual irregularities
Many women experience these symptoms from time to time caused by conditions not related to this cancer. Experiencing one or more of these does not usually indicate ovarian cancer. If you have these symptoms and they a new and occur almost daily, see your doctor promptly.
The cause of ovarian cancer, like many cancers, is unknown, but studies show that these factors may increase your risk for ovarian cancer.
- Age. Risk increases with age; most ovarian cancers are found after menopause in women older than 50.
- Childbearing. This includes women who are infertile.
- Family history. Women who have a mother, sister or daughter who have had ovarian cancer are at an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. The risk is even higher if you have more relatives with ovarian cancer, including relatives from your father's side of the family. Some ovarian cancers are inherited because of a gene mutation that may cause breast cancers and other cancers. Genetic tests can determine whether you carry the gene mutation.
- Personal history. If you are a breast or colon cancer survivor, you have a greater chance of developing ovarian cancer.
- Fertility drugs or hormone replacement therapy. There is some evidence that suggests your risk of ovarian cancer may increase if you used these drugs.
Diagnosis and treatment
To accurately diagnosis ovarian cancer, you may need a pelvic exam, ultrasound, CT scan, MRI, or biopsy, as determined by your physician. A blood test called CA 125 may be done. This measures a protein (CA 125) in the blood that is elevated in most women with ovarian cancer. However, elevations of CA 125 can occur for other reasons so your physician may decide to use this test in concert with other diagnostic tools.
There are clinical trials underway today to discover new ways to treat this cancer. Talk with your physician to see what's best for you.
Treatment for ovarian cancer depends on your health, the size and location of the tumor, and the stage of the disease. Surgery combined with chemotherapy is the most common method of treatment. Before you begin any treatment, discuss your treatment options and concerns with your physician.
Support and resources
Mission Hospital offers support and encouragement throughout your treatment process, and you can find many support groups online. Some Internet resources you might find helpful include: