Ovarian Cancer

What is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer is a cancer which arises from the ovaries, the female reproductive organs that produce ova (eggs). It is one of the most common cancers in women, and most commonly affects women older than 50. A common cause of this cancer is a gene called BRCA-1 or BCRA-2, although other factors which influence hormone levels over the lifetime can also increase the risk of this condition. The symptoms of ovarian cancer are often unspecific, and include bloating, lower abdominal pain or heaviness, early satiety (feeling full quickly), bloating, change in bowel habits, and vaginal bleeding between periods or after menopause. Diagnosis is based on ultrasound examination of the pelvis. Treatment often involves surgery, chemotherapy, and, less commonly, radiotherapy, depending on the stage of the disease. Outlook depends on the type of ovarian cancer and the stage of the disease at the time of diagnosis. Early diagnosis and treatment is essential to give the best chance of recovery.

Risks

Cancer occurs when abnormal cells grow uncontrollably. These cells destroy the healthy cells around them, and can spread through blood vessels and lymph channels to other areas of the body. Ovarian cancer arises from the ovaries, which are usually responsible for producing ova (eggs) and the hormones estrogen and progesterone. Ovarian cancer is a relatively common cancer. The risk factors for ovarian cancer are often connected to hormonal conditions or genetic conditions. Women who have multiple family members who have had ovarian, breast or uterine (womb) cancer may be at risk that there is a gene for cancer in the family. Two genes, BRCA-1 and BRCA-2, are known to be connected with developing these cancers. People with Lynch syndrome are also at increased risk. Other things that increase the risk of ovarian cancer include being overweight, never having had children and the use of hormone replacement therapy. Ovarian cancer is most common in women over the age of 50, although it does sometimes occur in younger women.

Symptoms

The symptoms of ovarian cancer can be very subtle and nonspecific, especially in the early stages. Abdominal swelling, early satiety (feeling full quickly), bloating and pain may be mistaken for digestive troubles. Diarrhea, constipation and indigestion may also occur. Other general symptoms may include tiredness, nausea and loss of appetite. More specific signs can be bleeding after or during sexual intercourse and vaginal bleeding which occurs after menopause. Cancer types which produce hormones may cause masculine features, such as facial hair, or early puberty in girls.

Diagnosis

Diagnosis is based on the symptoms and a gynecological examination, during which the tumor may be felt. The diagnosis is confirmed with a scan (either an ultrasound or CT scan) and taking and investigating a sample of the cancer (a biopsy).

Treatment

Treatment for ovarian cancer depends on the size and specific type of the cancer, whether the cancer has spread at the time of diagnosis and the general health of the affected person. This determines the stage of the cancer. Treatment may involve surgery to remove the cancer, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or a combination of these. In some cases, hormonal therapy or immunotherapy (using the immune system to fight the cancer) may be used. Counseling and emotional support is also very important.

Prevention

Prevention includes regular gynecological checkups. Women with multiple family members who have ovarian, breast or uterine (womb) cancer should discuss testing for the BRCA gene with their doctor. Women with the BRCA gene may consider surgical removal of their ovaries to reduce their risk of ovarian cancer.

Other names for ovarian cancer

  • Neoplasm ovary
  • Ovarian neoplasms
  • Ovarian carcinoma