Ovarian cancer starts in a woman's ovaries. There are two ovaries, one on each side of the pelvis. The ovaries produce eggs and are the main source of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone.
There are many types of tumors that can start in the ovaries. Some are benign or non-cancerous, and the patient can be treated by surgically removing the ovary or the part of the ovary containing the tumor. Some are malignant or cancerous. The treatment options and the outcome for the patient depend on the type of ovarian cancer and how far it has spread before it is diagnosed.
There are three main types of ovarian tumors. They are named for the kind of cells that they start from. Epithelial tumors, which develop from the cells that cover the outer surface of the ovary, account for 85 to 90% of all cancers of the ovaries. The second type of tumor starts in the germ cells that form the eggs in the ovary. The third type of tumor starts from the stromal cell tissue, which holds the ovary together and produces the female hormones.
An ovarian cyst is a collection of fluid inside one of your ovaries. Most ovarian cysts occur during ovulation and usually go away within a few months, without any treatment. If you develop a cyst, your doctor may want to keep an eye on it to see if it gets smaller after your next menstrual cycle. Ovarian cysts can be more concerning in females who aren't ovulating (post-menopausal women or younger girls who haven't yet started their periods). Your doctor may also order more tests if the cyst is larger than average, or if it does not go away within a few months.
Most ovarian cysts are benign (not cancer), but a small number of them could be cancer. Sometimes, the only way to know for sure if a cyst is cancer is to remove it with surgery.
Difficult to detect in its early stages, ovarian cancer is often permitted to progress to an advanced stage before it is detected. In fact, the majority of women, 77%, are diagnosed after the disease has reached an advanced stage. Despite advancements in surgery and chemotherapy treatments, the overall five-year survival rate for women with advanced stage ovarian cancer has remained constant over the past 30 years at approximately 15%.
Conversely, those women diagnosed with early stage (Stage I) disease have an overall five-year survival rate approaching 90 to 95%. Clearly, early-stage detection of ovarian cancer is the best way to improve survival.
Being proactive can make all the difference - know the symptoms. The sooner ovarian cancer is detected, the better the chances of overcoming it. If you experience any of these warning signs, talk to your doctor:
While these symptoms also represent common problems that affect most women at different times, it's important to be aware of them. If you have one or more of these symptoms, and if they persist for two weeks or more, see your doctor immediately.
All women should know the following steps they can take to avoid being surprised by the subtle approach of ovarian cancer.
Learn your family history
If any female members of your family—either on your mother's or your father's side—has had ovarian cancer, it is important you notify your primary care physician and your obstetrician/gynecologist. They can monitor you on a regular basis using a variety of diagnostic tests that are available to screen for ovarian cancer. It is also important to notify your doctor if any male family members develop cancer.
Be your own advocate
Researchers have found that women experience symptoms for an average of 12 weeks before consulting a doctor. In addition, it is known that women who ignore their symptoms or who wait until the symptoms are severe before going to the doctor, will not live as long as women who go to the doctor when their symptoms are mild.
Monitor your annual check-ups
Make sure your primary care doctor and obstetrician/gynecologist conduct a thorough pelvic and rectal exam at every checkup. It is also important to have an annual mammogram beginning at age 40 and a regular colonoscopy after age 50.
Ask your doctor for the BRCA1/BRCA2 genetic test
Genetic testing can determine if you carry gene mutations that put you at risk for having ovarian cancer. Carriers of the BRCA1/BRCA2 gene mutation carry a 60% lifetime increased risk of ovarian cancer. Testing for this gene consists of a simple blood test.
Make an appointment at a specialized clinic
At a high-risk clinic, a team of specialists will evaluate your medical history, ensure you receive the appropriate diagnostic tests and monitor your care. Among the tests that you may receive is the CA-125 blood test. The CA-125 screening test can be used to diagnose women who are at high-risk. CA-125 is a protein that can be found in the blood and is useful in detecting and evaluating ovarian cancer. The test, however, is best used in combination with a pelvic ultrasound because its accuracy is only 80%, and is even less reliable when used to screen pre-menopausal women.
All statistics and facts are compiled from the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund and National Cancer Institute.