Ovarian cancer is the leading cause of gynecological cancer deaths in the nation, according to the Ovarian Cancer Institute. While early detection is the key to survival, ovarian cancer easily slips under the radar. Here is a basic guide to ovarian cancer:
Ovarian cancer forms in the tissues of the ovaries, which are the female reproductive organs responsible for producing hormones. According to the National Cancer Institute, ovarian cancer comes in two forms: ovarian epithelial carcinomas and malignant germ cell tumors. Ovarian epithelial carcinoma grows on the surface of the ovary, while malignant germ cell tumors are found in egg cells. Over time, cancer cells can spread to other parts of the body in a process that is called metastasizing.
Early ovarian cancer does not always exhibit visible symptoms. As the tumor or cyst grows, an individual can begin to experience various symptoms that often include pain or pressure in the abdomen, pelvis, back or legs. Other symptoms are a swollen or bloated abdomen, nausea, indigestion, gas, constipation, diarrhea and fatigue. Less common symptoms are shortness of breath, a frequent need to urinate and unusual vaginal bleeding. These indeterminate signs could point to a number of different illnesses, so a woman experiencing any of these symptoms should consult a medical professional. If a doctor suspects ovarian cancer, he or she can perform a pelvic exam and blood test to confirm a diagnosis. The doctor may also use an ultrasound to look for physical signs of a tumor or perform a biopsy, surgically removing tissue to look for cancer cells.
Cancer progresses along four stages of increasing gravity. Stage I cancer cells are found only in the ovaries, discovered on the surface or in abdominal fluid. Stage II cancer has spread to nearby pelvic tissue and is possibly present in the fallopian tubes or uterus. Stage III cancer has reached beyond the pelvis and may be found outside the liver. Stage IV means the cells have spread throughout the body, potentially affecting the lungs, liver or other organs.
It remains unclear why one woman develops ovarian cancer and another does not. While there is no precise cause, researchers have zoned in on a number of risk factors for ovarian cancer. Age is a common risk factor, as most women diagnosed with ovarian cancer are over 55 years old. Women with a family history of cancer are more susceptible to the disease. A medical history of breast, uterus, colon or rectum cancer also correlates to a higher risk for ovarian cancer.
The appropriate type of treatment depends on the stage of cancer. Local therapy is a widely used treatment option for women with ovarian cancer. Local therapy, like local anesthesia, targets very specific areas in the body. Radiation therapy is occasionally used, but surgery is the most common form of local therapy. Through a procedure known as a laparotomy, the surgeon looks into the abdominal cavity to locate the cancer. Once it is discovered, the surgeon will try to remove all of the cancer to prevent it from growing back. Depending on the stage of cancer, this could mean a removal of both ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, intestinal lining or nearby lymph nodes. Chemotherapy is another form of local therapy, as cancer-killing drugs are injected directly into the abdomen and pelvis. Chemotherapy can also be used throughout the body, with medication taken orally or by injection to fight cancer cells throughout the bloodstream.