Ovarian Cancer - Introduction
The ovaries are an integral pair of organs belonging to the female reproductive system. They house the reproductive eggs and also produce the hormones estrogen and progesterone. Ovarian cancer occurs when cancer develops on or in an ovary.
Ovarian cancer is the eighth most common cancer among women and the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths in women. The American Cancer Society estimates that 20,000 new cases of ovarian cancer will be diagnosed this year, and approximately 15,000 women will die from ovarian cancer this year.
There are several different types of ovarian cancer. The most common form, epithelial carcinoma, develops on the surface of the ovary (the epithelium). A second type of ovarian cancer, a germ cell tumor, is less common than epithelial carcinoma and occurs when cancer develops in the egg-producing cells of the ovaries. A third type of ovarian cancer, a stromal tumor, is rare; it occurs when cancer develops in the supporting tissue of the ovary.
Types of Ovarian Cancer
|Epithelial carcinoma||develops on the surface of the ovary|
|Germ cell tumor||develops in the egg-producing ovary cells|
|Stromal tumor||develops in the supporting tissue of the ovary|
While the majority of women who develop ovarian cancer have no known risk factors for the disease, researchers have identified a few factors that increase a woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer. These factors include advancing age, family history and genetics, early onset of menstruation (before age 12) or late menopause (after age 50), having a first child after age 30 or never having children, or having breast cancer.
Like many cancers, ovarian cancer can be highly treatable if detected in early stages. However, many cases of ovarian cancer are not diagnosed until advanced stages. This is because the symptoms of ovarian cancer can be very subtle ("silent") or unnoticeable until the disease has progressed significantly. Symptoms of ovarian cancer include pelvic/abdominal pain, gastrointestinal problems, frequent urination, changes in bowel habits, weight gain or loss, pain during sexual intercourse, fatigue, leg pain, or unusual vaginal bleeding. If any of these symptoms persist, women should inform their physicians and undergo clinical examination.
A variety of tests may be used to diagnose ovarian cancer. A pelvic exam may be performed by a physician to check for any abnormalities in the size or shape of the uterus, vagina, ovaries, Fallopian tubes, bladder, and rectum. All women should undergo pelvic exams every year beginning at age 18. Other tests that may be used to diagnose ovarian cancer include ultrasound, a blood test that measures the level of a tumor marker called CA-125, x-rays of the lower colon and rectum, CT scan, or MRI scan. A biopsy (tissue sampling) is usually performed if a tumor is found to determine whether it is cancerous.
The treatment of ovarian cancer depends on a variety of factors including the size, type, and other characteristics of the patient’s tumor. Surgery is typically performed to remove the ovaries and other organs, such as the liver. Chemotherapy or radiation therapy may also be used. If ovarian cancer is detected in early stages before it has spread past the ovary, the American Cancer Society estimates that nine out of ten women will live at least five years with the disease. However, only 25% of ovarian cancer cases are detected in early stages. As with other cancers, advances in detection and treatment continue to offer hope in the battle against ovarian cancer.
Like many cancers, ovarian cancer can be highly treatable if detected in early stages. However, many cases of ovarian cancer are not diagnosed until advanced stages. This is because physicians have viewed the symptoms of ovarian cancer as very subtle ("silent") or unnoticeable until the disease has progressed significantly. However, a recent study shows that there may be common symptoms associated with ovarian cancer, including abdominal or pelvic pain, abdominal bleeding, or urinary frequency, among others. Though these symptoms can also be caused by more common problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome, it is important that women who experience the commonly identified symptoms on a persist basis see their physicians for follow up. Please see the Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer page for more information.
- Risk Factors
- Detection and Diagnosis
- Study: Advances in Detection
- Additional Resources and References
Updated: January 10, 2008