Ovarian Cancer

The ovaries are two almond-sized organs located in a woman’s pelvis. They produce the female hormones estrogen and progesterone and release eggs into the uterus as part of the reproductive cycle. Over 20,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the United States each year. Early diagnosis is complicated because symptoms may be non-existent or not significant enough to motivate a woman to seek medical evaluation.

Causes of Ovarian Cancer

There is no specific cause for ovarian cancer, but several risk factors may contribute to developing this form of cancer:

  • Family history – if members of your family have had breast cancer or ovarian cancer, your risk of developing cancer increases
  • Personal history of cancer – women with a history of breast, colon, uterine, or rectal cancer
  • Infertility – women who are infertile may have a higher risk
  • Never been pregnant – women who have not had a child have a slightly higher incidence of ovarian cancer.
  • Hormone Replacement Therapy – long-term estrogen replacement therapy  without progesterone may increase the risk of developing this type of cancer

Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer

There are few if any obvious symptoms of early ovarian cancer. Some of the more commonly reported symptoms are:

  • Stomach or pelvic pressure or pain
  • Bloating or swelling in the abdomen
  • Nausea, gas, indigestion, constipation, or diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
  • Frequent urination or urgency

Diagnosing Ovarian Cancer

Unfortunately, there are no reliable screening tests for ovarian cancer. A diagnosis of ovarian cancer is usually suspected as a result of the following medical tests.

  • Medical history and physical exam
  • Pelvic exam – lumps on the ovaries or surrounding organs may be felt
  • Blood tests – levels of cancer antigen 125 (CA-125) found on the surface of ovarian cancer cells may indicate ovarian cancer
  • Ultrasound – tumors may be detected on the ovary using ultrasound
  • Laparotomy – surgical opening of the lower abdomen is used to confirm a diagnosis of ovarian cancer

Treating Ovarian Cancer

Treatment choices for ovarian cancer are determined by the size of the tumor and if cancer has spread to surrounding organs or other parts of the body.

Treatment options include:

  • Removal of the cancerous ovary and fallopian tube
  • Removal of fatty tissue (omentum) from around the abdominal organs
  • Removal of lymph nodes in the abdomen and around the aorta

In more advanced cases of ovarian cancer, surgical removal of the uterus and both ovaries may be required along with more extensive removal of omentum and lymph nodes.

Chemotherapy is recommended following surgery. Chemotherapy may be given systemically by introducing the anti-cancer drugs orally or into the blood system, or locally by placing the chemotherapy directly into the abdomen (intraperitoneal).