Understanding ovarian cancer

What is Ovarian Cancer?

Ovarian cancer is a type of cancer that forms in a woman’s ovaries. Women have one ovary on each side of the uterus, and their job is to produce eggs and the hormones estrogen and progesterone.

Ovarian cancer is often fatal because it usually goes undetected until it has spread to the pelvis and abdomen. Once it has reached this stage, it becomes significantly more difficult to treat. If the cancer is caught in the early stages, it is much more likely to be treated successfully.

Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer 

Ovarian cancer in its early stages will rarely produce any symptoms at all, which is why it is so difficult to detect. Once it has reached the advanced stages, it may cause some symptoms, but they are often nonspecific and are easily mistaken for other common conditions such as constipation or irritable bowel syndrome. If symptoms are present, they generally include:

  • Bloating or swelling of the abdomen
  • Weight loss
  • Constipation or other changes in the bowels
  • Frequent urination
  • Feeling full quickly after beginning to eat
  • Discomfort in the pelvis area

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms consistently, see your doctor as soon as possible. This is especially important if you have a family history of ovarian or breast cancer, as this increases your risk of developing it as well.

Causes of Ovarian Cancer

The causes of ovarian cancer are not yet fully understood. Scientists know that certain genetic mutations will cause normal cells to turn into abnormal cancerous ones, which will multiply quickly and form into a tumor. The tumor can grow and invade nearby tissues, and in later stages, the cells are able to break off from the original tumor and spread to other parts of the body.

Doctors diagnose specific forms of ovarian cancer by examinging the type of cells that are affected by the condition first. Epithelial tumors begin in the thin layer of tissue that covers the outside of the ovaries, and this is the most common form. Stromal tumors begin in the hormone-producing cells of the ovaries. This type of tumor is usually able to be diagnosed earlier than other ovarian tumors. Finally, germ cell tumors begin in the egg-producing cells of the ovaries. This is the most rare form of ovarian cancer, and it tends to occur primarily in younger women.

Treatments for Ovarian Cancer

Treatment for ovarian cancer will generally involve a combination of surgery and chemotherapy. Most commonly, the first step is to have the ovaries removed, as well as the fallopian tubes, the uterus, and the nearby lymph nodes. If the cancer has spread to the abdomen, the surgeon will try to remove as much cancer as possible from this area as well.

After surgery is complete, chemotherapy begins in an attempt to kill any remaining cancer cells. Chemotherapy can be delivered through the vein or directly injected into the abdomen. This may be the initial line of treatment if the ovarian cancer is particularly advanced. 

Last Updated: July 26, 2016