Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer often goes undetected until it has spread within the pelvis and abdomen. The cancer begins in the ovaries or the ends of the fallopian tubes. The ovaries are the main source of the female hormones, estrogen and progesterone. The ovaries are made up of three main kinds of cells. Each type of cell can develop into a different type of tumor.

Generally, women are more likely to have symptoms if the disease has spread beyond the ovaries, but even early-stage ovarian cancer can cause them. The most common symptoms include bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, trouble eating or feeling full quickly, frequent urination and pelvic pressure with difficulty having bowel movements.

Treatments for Ovarian Cancer

Treatment of ovarian cancer usually involves a combination of surgery and chemotherapy. If the disease is confined to one or both ovaries, with no obvious spread to other organs, the primary disease is removed and a staging procedure is performed. This could involve removal of the ovaries, the fallopian tubes, the uterus and nearby lymph nodes, biopsies from the pelvis and abdomen and removal of a fold of fatty abdominal tissue where ovarian cancer often spreads, called the omentum. For more advanced disease there would be an effort to remove all of the obvious disease if possible. After surgery, chemotherapy would be offered to kill any remaining cancer cells.

This well-known cancer treatment uses medicines taken intravenously or by mouth to kill cancer cells throughout the body. Chemotherapy may be given before surgery to shrink tumors, or after to fight cancer cells that have potentially spread.

Debulking Surgery
This surgery treats the most common form of ovarian cancer, when it has spread beyond the ovaries. As much cancer as possible is removed from the abdomen.

Radiation Oncology
A team of medical professionals with advanced training deliver radiation treatment and care.

Targeted Drug Therapy
A series of anti-cancer drugs aimed at preventing cancer cells from spreading.

What Is Ovarian Cancer?

Ovarian cancer is a malignant tumor in the ovary, the woman’s reproductive organ that releases eggs and female hormones, such as estrogen. It’s the second most common women’s cancer (after cancer of the uterus). About half of women with this cancer are older (average age of 59) and have gone through menopause (change of life), so their ovaries no longer work.

What Causes Ovarian Cancer?

The cause isn’t clear, but certain things can increase chances of getting it. The most important are age and having relatives who had it. Others are obesity, having breast cancer, starting periods early, and going through menopause late. Some other factors, such as having children, breast feeding, and using birth control pills, can lower the chances.

What Are the Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer?

The most common symptoms are vague or mild and include discomfort or a heavy feeling in the lower abdomen (belly), loss of appetite, and weight loss or gain. Others are abnormal periods, back pain, nausea, and loss of appetite.

How Is Ovarian Cancer Diagnosed?

Medical history and physical examination are the first steps in evaluating ovarian cancer. The health care provider may suspect cancer because of symptoms and physical examination. Imaging tests (such as ultrasonography) can suggest the possibility of cancer. Biopsy is the only way to tell whether a mass in the ovary is cancer. In a biopsy, a small piece of tissue is surgically removed and studied with a microscope. The doctor also uses the surgery to find out the stage (extent) of a cancer. The stage relates to how far the cancer spread. Sometimes, tumor markers (CA-125, a substance found in blood) may help diagnosis.

How Is Ovarian Cancer Treated?

Treatment depends on the location and stage of disease, type of cancer, and age and general health. The main treatment is surgery, usually to remove ovaries, fallopian tubes, lymph glands (nodes), and uterus. Specialized doctors called gynecologic oncologists are the best doctors for treatment.

Drugs (chemotherapy) and radiation therapy are other choices.

DOs and DON’Ts in Managing Ovarian Cancer:
  • DO tell your health care provider about relatives with ovarian cancer.
  • DO remember, if you have not yet gone through menopause, that removing your ovaries and uterus means that you cannot become pregnant. You’ll also go through menopause.
  • DO ask your health care provider about emotional and social support groups in your community.
  • DO tell your health care provider about medicine side effects.
  • DO live a healthy lifestyle. Eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and less fat. Keep to your ideal weight. Exercise.
  • DON’T miss follow-up health care provider appointments.

Contact the following sources:

  • American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
    Website: http://www.acog.org
  • American Cancer Society
    Tel: (800) 227-2345
    Website: http://www.cancer.org
  • National Ovarian Cancer Coalition
    Tel: (888) 682-7426
    Website: http://www.ovarian.org
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
    Websites: http://womenshealth.gov

Copyright © 2016 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc.

Ferri’s Netter Patient Advisor