The ovaries are part of the female reproductive system. Women have two ovaries which are located in the lower abdomen on each side of the uterus. The ovaries produce eggs and hormones (oestrogen and progesterone). What is Ovarian cancer?
What is Ovarian Cancer?
Ovarian cancer is one of the common gynaecological cancers. The others are cervical and uterine cancer. Ovarian cancer occurs when harmful cancer cells grow in the ovary.
There are three types of ovarian cancers, classified according to the cell they begin to form from.
- Epithelial tumours: This is the most common type of ovarian cancer. The tumours form in the cells that cover the outer surface of the ovaries. This type of cancer can be quite difficult to diagnose in the early stages because the tumours can begin as non-cancerous tumours.
- Germ cell tumours: This type starts in the cells that produces the ova (eggs). The most common types of germ cell tumours are teratomas, endodermal sinus tumours and dysgerminomas. Of the different types of ovarian cancer, germ cell tumours are common in women in their early 20s.
- Stromal carcinoma tumours: This is a rare type of ovarian cancer that develops in the connective tissues that hold the ovary together and the tissues that produce estrogen and progesterone.
Signs and symptoms of Ovarian cancer
These cancers may not cause signs in the early stages but as they progress, the followings signs and symptoms may occur:
- Pain in the pelvic and in the abdomen (lower stomach)
- Frequent and urgent urination
- Constipation and bloating
- Feeling full quickly when eating
- Shortness of breath
- Swelling of the legs
It is important to note that having any of the symptoms listed above does not necessarily mean that one has ovarian cancer. One should seek medical advice or have a test done to be certain.
Causes of Ovarian Cancer
The precise causes of ovarian cancer have not been established, however factors that increase the risk include the following:
- Family history: if a person’s family has a history of breast cancer, uterine cancer or colon cancer one may have a high chance of developing ovarian cancer.
- Endometriosis: this condition occurs when the endometrium which is a layer of tissue that covers the uterus grows outside the uterus.
- Personal history: if one has had a history of breast, colon or uterine cancer there are increased chances that one may get ovarian cancer.
- Hormone Replacement Therapy: women using oestrogen injections without also using progesterone injections after menopause have a higher risk of ovarian cancer.
- Age: the older you get, the higher your chances of getting ovarian cancer.
- Obesity: being over overweight, especially after menopause, increases your chances of getting ovarian cancer.
Diagnosis of Ovarian Cancer
To diagnose gall bladder or bile duct cancer, the following could be undertaken:
- Physical examination: the doctor carries out a vaginal examination to check whether there are any abnormalities in the uterus or ovaries.
- Blood test: blood samples are tested to check whether there are any cancer cell traces.
- Imaging tests: MRI and CT scans can be done to identify the location of the tumour.
- Laparoscopy: a tube with a camera is inserted through small incisions in the lower abdomen.
- Transvaginal sonography: a painless examination of the pelvis done to identify any abnormalities in the female reproductive organs. It is performed through a hand-held device known as transducer which uses high frequency sound waves to create an image of the organs.
The treatment for ovarian cancer depends on several things, for example: how far it has spread, your general health and whether you’re still able to have children.
The aim of treatment is to cure the cancer if possible. If the cancer is too advanced to be cured, the treatment aims at relieving symptoms and controlling the cancer for as long as possible.
The following are some of the treatments that can be carried out if one has ovarian cancer:
- Surgery: This is usually the first step for most ovarian cancer cases. It involves the removal of the affected ovary. If one ovary is removed one may still have a chance of conceiving, but if the two are removed it will be impossible for one to conceive again.
- Chemotherapy: This is medication that is used to kill cancer cells. It may be used after surgery to kill remaining cancer cells or before surgery to shrink the cancer and so make it easier to remove the cancer. It may also be used the if ovarian cancer comes back after initial treatment.
- Radiation therapy: This treatment uses carefully directed beams of radiation to kill the cancer cells.
- Targeted therapy: In this treatment the doctor uses drugs to target cancer pathways. Unlike chemotherapy the treatment does not destroy normal cells.
- Hormone therapy: This form of treatment uses hormone blocking drugs to fight cancer.
Prevention of Ovarian Cancer
The following factors may reduce a woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer:
- Taking birth control pills: Women who took oral contraceptives for 3 or more years may be 30% to 50% less likely to develop ovarian cancer. The decrease in risk may last for 30 years after a woman stops taking the pills.
- Breastfeeding: The longer a woman breastfeeds, the lower her risk of ovarian and fallopian tube cancer.
- Pregnancy: The more full-term pregnancies a woman has had, the lower her risk of ovarian and fallopian tube cancer.
- Surgical procedures: Women who have had a hysterectomy or a tubal ligation may have a lower risk of developing ovarian cancer. A hysterectomy is the removal of the uterus and, sometimes, the cervix. Tubal ligation is having the fallopian tubes “tied” or closed surgically to prevent pregnancy.