As women get older, their risk of having ovarian cancer increases. The diagnosis of ovarian cancer brings with it many questions that needs clear understandable answers. Knowing and having more information about this disease can make it easier for women and their families to handle the challenges they face. Cancer researchers continue to study and learn more about ovarian cancer.
The ovaries are a pair of organs in the female reproductive system. They are located in a woman’s pelvis, one on each side of the uterus (the hollow, pear-shaped organ where a baby grows). Each ovary is about the size and shape of an almond and they can often be felt by a doctor during bi-manual portion of a pelvic examination. The ovaries have to main functions: production of eggs and production of female hormones (chemicals that control the way certain cells or organs functions).
Every month during menstrual cycle, an egg is released from one ovary in a process called ovulation. The ovaries are also the main source of female hormones estrogen and progesterone. These hormones influence the development of a woman’s breasts, body shape, and body hair. They also regulate the menstrual cycle and pregnancy.
A malignant tumor (mass of cells that form due to abnormal uncontrollable production of cells in the body) that begins in the ovaries is called ovarian cancer. There are numerous types of ovarian cancer. Ovarian cancer that begins on the surface of the ovary (epithelial carcinoma) is the most common type. Ovarian cancer that begins in the egg-producing cells (germ cell tumors) and cancer that begins in the supportive tissue surrounding the ovaries (stromal tumors) are rare.
In a process called shedding, ovarian cancer cells can break away from the ovary and spread to other tissues and organs; when it sheds, it tends to seed (form new tumors) on the peritoneum (the large membrane that lines the abdomen) and on the diaphragm (the thin muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen). Fluid may gather in the abdomen, this condition is known as ascites.
It may make a woman feel bloated, or her abdomen may look swollen. Ovarian cancer cells can also enter the bloodstream or lymphatic system the tissues and organs that produce and store cells that fight infection and disease). Once in the bloodstream or lymphatic system, the cancer cells can travel and form new tumors in other parts of the body.
The risk for developing ovarian cancer appears to be affected by several factors. The more children a woman has, the lower her risk of ovarian cancer. Early age at first pregnancy, older ages of final pregnancy, and the use of some oral contraceptive pills have also been shown to have a protective effect. Ovarian cancer is reduced in women after tubal ligation. Risk factors for getting ovarian cancer includes age, the older a woman becomes, the highert the chances of getting it; family history, particulary family members affected at an early age; other factors that have been investigated, such as talc use, asbestos exposure, high dietary fat content, and childhood mumps infection, are controversial and have not been definitively proven.
Early stages of this cancer usually do not cause any symptoms, and even when it does produce symptoms, they are often very non-specific and don’t point towards diagnosis of ovarian cancer. When the tumor grows in size it produces a variety of problems that includes abdominal swelling or abdominal pain, vaginal bleeding between periods or after menopause, bloating, gas, indigestion or cramps, pelvic pain loss of appetite, feeling full after a small meal, or feeling full very easily, changes in bowel or bladder habits, and weight loss or weight gain. These symptoms are non-specific and could present a variety of different conditions; however checking with your doctor is advisable if you develop any of these problems.
Treatment of the disease depends on a number of factors including the stage of the disease and the general health of the patient. Surgery is the usual initial treatment for women diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Studies have shown that surgery performed by a specialist in gynecologic oncology usually result in a higher rate of cure. Other treatment includes chemotherapy and radiationa therapy.
The National Cancer Institute is supporting and conducting research on the causes and prevention of ovarian cancer. Cancer support groups provide an environment where cancer patients can talk about living with cancer with others who may be having similar experiences. This helps patients in coping up with the emotional aspects of their disease.