Ovarian cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in the ovaries. With over 30 different types of ovarian cancer, this disease that can appear with few warnings because the signs and symptoms are subtle and vague. Each type of cancer is classified by the type of cell where the ovarian cancer originates. There are three common cell types: common epithelial tumors, germ cell tumors, and stromal tumors.
The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2012, 22,280 women were diagnosed with ovarian cancer and 15,500 women died from the disease. These statistics make ovarian cancer the fifth leading cause of death and the leading cause of gynecologic cancer deaths among women in the United States. When ovarian cancer is found in its early stages, it has a 92 percent five-year survival rate. However, most women are diagnosed at advanced stages and less than 50 percent of these women will survive five years. Due to the vague symptoms, women and their physicians often attribute these signs to other causes. This extends the time to diagnosis and the cancer has often spread beyond the ovaries, at this point.
Several factors can increase the risk of ovarian cancer, however most patients are diagnosed with an unknown origin of the disease. Women with a family history of ovarian, breast, uterus, colon or rectal cancer are at higher risk for development of this condition. Women who have never been pregnant, those who have taken hormone therapy for more than 10 years and those who have tested positive for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutation are also at high risk. In addition, older women have the greatest possibility of developing ovarian cancer with 90% of cases developing in women greater than 40 years old and the most number of cases diagnosed in those greater than 60 years of age.
The following factors can decrease the risk of ovarian cancer: multiple pregnancies, 5 years or more oral contraceptive use, the removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes, tubal ligation and breastfeeding.
One or more of the following signs and symptoms may develop with ovarian cancer:
- Back pain.
- Swollen/bloated abdomen.
- Pressure/pain in the abdomen.
- Feeling full quickly.
- Constipation or diarrhea.
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge.
It is important to see a physician, preferably a gynecologist, if these symptoms persist for a couple of weeks. Many women do not go directly to their OB/GYN and they are misdiagnosed for several weeks or months.
Currently, no early detection test is available to diagnose ovarian cancer. Therefore, physicians rely on multiple tests when diagnosing a patient with this insidious disease. The CA-125 blood test is the most reliable early detection tool available to diagnose ovarian cancer in older women. However, this test becomes inaccurate when trying to pinpoint cancer in younger patients. Because of the unreliability of this blood test, physicians frequently use this assessment in combination with a CT scan to help identify ovarian cancer in all patients. However, a biopsy (surgery) of the tumor, is the best definitive diagnostic test for ovarian cancer in women.
Once diagnosed, it is important to be treated by a gynecologic oncologist as treatment by these specialists has shown to greatly improve survival rate. The following website lists gynecologic oncologists in your area: www.wcn.org.
Source: Division of Cancer Prevention and Control, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (2012). www.cdc.gov/cancer/ovarian/index.htm. Ovarian Cancer. Retrieved January 19th, 2012. http://www.cdc.gov.
For more information on ovarian cancer, check out: http://www.ocrf.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&layout=blog&id=36&Itemid=293