Ovarian cancer is a malignant tumor in a single ovary, or both. Ovaries are the female reproductive organ which houses and releases egg cells. The ovaries also secrete certain hormones which regulate menstruation. Therefore the cancer which invades health ovarian tissue also compromises these functions of the ovary. The risk with ovarian cancer, as is the case with any malignancy, is the risk of spread to surrounding organs and distant sites.
Ovarian cancer symptoms are often vague and therefore detection of ovarian cancer is usually very late. Some of the symptoms of ovarian cancer are:
- Irregular menses, excessive bleeding or bleeding between periods.
- Pelvic or lower abdominal pain with probable feeling of heaviness at the lower abdominal region.
- Abnormal breast enlargement may be seen.
- Back pain.
- Excessive hair growth.
- Probable weight gain.
- Symptoms such as indigestion, loss of appetite, nausea or vomiting may be present.
- Increased abdominal girth.
- Other symptoms if cancer spread to other regions of the body such as kidney or liver.
- Increased urinary frequency.
- Collection of fluid in the abdomen (ascites).
The reasons why ovarian cancer develops is not conclusively known. Despite some known risk factors, the condition does not develop in every person who is at risk. Certain genetic factors are found to be related to development of ovarian cancer. Some women on hormone replacement therapy are at risk of developing ovarian cancer. Women who have had not been pregnant in the lifetime are also at risk of developing ovarian cancer whereas women who have had multiple pregnancies are at a lower risk.
Other high risk factors include:
- Family history of ovarian cancer.
- History of ovarian or breast tumor.
- History of abnormal ovarian function.
- Presence of cancer elsewhere in the body.
The treatment of ovarian cancer depends on the stage and grade of the tumor. Late detection of ovarian cancer often means that treatment will not be curative. However, it can help improve the quality of life of the patient by reducing the symptoms. Ovarian cancer is life threatening as is the case with any type of cancer.
Surgical excision is usually the choice of treatment in early stages of cancer, though it can be done all stages of ovarian cancer. Single or both ovaries may sometimes be removed. Ovaries can be removed along with the fallopian tubes or along with uterus. If the disease spreads to the surrounding tissue removal of that may be necessary such at surrounding fat, lymph nodes and other tissues in the abdomen and pelvis. Biopsy or frozen section diagnosis may be necessary before surgery to determine the exact nature of the tumor.
Radiation therapy is used to destroy cancer cells but also kills healthy cells in the region. It is associated with significant side effects and complications, particularly affecting the kidneys. Combination chemotherapy, which uses several cancer-killing drugs, have been found to give favorable results. Chemotherapy can also be used to treat any residual cancer left post surgery. The patient is to be carefully monitored with regular follow up for recurrence post surgery or after chemotherapy. Other regions of the body are to be carefully evaluated to detect any spread of cancer.