Ovarian cancer, a type of cancer that arises from the ovaries and related areas, causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system. Approximately 160,000 people died from ovarian cancer in 2010 worldwide. There are several different types of ovarian cancer. Epithelial ovarian cancer (EOC), which arises from the epithelium (lining cells) of the ovary, makes up 85% to 90% of all ovarian cancer cases.
Ovarian cancer generally starts silently. This means that at its earlier stages, ovarian cancer often shows no or only subtle symptoms. Symptoms become more obvious when the cancer progresses to its later stages, for instance, when the tumors have spread other parts of the body. Typical symptoms of ovarian cancer include:
- Pelvic pain
- Abdominal pain or swelling
- Back pain
- Irregular menstruation
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Loss of appetite
- Digestive problems
- Urinary symptoms
These symptoms can also be triggered by many other benign illnesses like a digestive tract problem. If you experience some of these symptoms for a short period of time and the symptoms are not severe, don’t worry too much. But if the symptoms persist or you suspect that there is something unusual, go to your doctor or other healthcare providers.
At present, most cases of ovarian cancer are diagnosed at an advanced stage of the disease. The primary reason is that ovarian cancer usually does not cause symptoms at its early stages and that many typical symptoms of ovarian cancer are nonspecific, as mentioned above. There is a lack of effective screening tests for clear early detection of ovarian cancer. Currently, methods that are used to diagnose ovarian cancer include a pelvic examination, imaging tests (ultrasound, X-rays, and CT scans), a blood test that detects the CA-125 protein, and a biopsy of tissue samples removed by surgery. Of these diagnostic tools, a tissue biopsy is the only way to confirm a diagnosis of ovarian cancer.
When a diagnosis of ovarian cancer is made, specialists in gynecology oncology will develop an appropriate treatment plan. There are several different therapy treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, immunotherapy, etc. Which treatment to choose is dependent on the type of ovarian cancer, the size and numbers of tumors, the stages of the disease, the presence or absence of genetic risk factors, age, overall health status, and many other factors. Besides, a patient’s preferences or goals for treatment should also be taken into consideration. In most cases, ovarian cancer treatment involves a combination of different methods.
Surgery: Doctors perform an operation to remove the cancer. Surgery is the main tool for both the diagnosis and treatment of ovarian cancer. Correspondingly, surgery has two purposes: (1) to determine the stage of the cancer, and (2) to remove tumor tissues as many as possible.
Chemotherapy: Using chemotherapy drugs to treat the cancer. Some drugs can be taken orally, while others are given through intravenous injection. The commonly used drugs for ovarian cancer treatment include paclitaxel, cisplatin, topotecan, doxorubicin, epirubicin, gemcitabine, etc.
Radiotherapy: Using high-energy rays, usually x-rays and similar rays, to treat the cancer. Radiotherapy is less commonly used than surgery and chemotherapy in the treatment of ovarian cancer. Radiotherapy can be used in stage 1c and stage 2 cancer after surgery and in palliative care of advanced cancers.
Immunotherapy: Using the body’s own immune system to fight the cancer. Immunotherapy has emerged as a research focus in cancer. An immunotherapy called bevacizumab has been approved for the treatment of ovarian cancer and several other types of cancer.
Others: There are other treatments options for ovarian cancer such as hormonal therapy, palliative care, and psychosocial care.
Scientists have established a series of risk factors for ovarian cancer. Having one or more risk factors does not mean that you will definitely get ovarian cancer. Instead, risk factors increase your chance of developing ovarian cancer. Some risk factors can be controlled, while others can’t be changed. Here are the known risk factors for ovarian cancer:
- Old age
- Genetic mutations in certain genes (BRCA1, BRCA2, MLH1, MSH2, or MSH6)
- A personal history of breast, endometrial or colon cancer
- A family history of ovarian cancer
- Hormone replacement therapy
- Never getting pregnant
- A high-fat diet
It’s important to recognize that most women with these risk factors will never develop ovarian cancer. Many risk factors only slightly increase the risk. So if you have these risk factors, don’t be panic. Besides, if you have genetic risk factors for ovarian cancer, you’d better tell your doctor so that your doctor can make some recommendations.
Tips to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer
Is there an effective way like a vaccine to prevent ovarian cancer? The answer is no. You should know that ovarian cancer is unpredictable. But there are things that you can do to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer:
- Give birth to at least one baby during lifetime
- Take birth control pills for a period of time (5 years)
- Receive a surgery to remove the ovaries or undergo a tubal ligation if there is a need
- Breastfeed your children
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Eat a well-balanced diet
- Do not smoke
- Do physical exercise regularly
It must be emphasized that some of these things are not suitable for all people. For example, women with genetic mutations in BRCA1 or BRCA2 have a significantly increased risk of ovarian cancer, and they may benefit from surgical removal of their ovaries and fallopian tubes. However, there are other risks associated with removing the ovaries and fallopian tubes. Some studies have shown that the removal of ovaries and fallopian tubes can result in problems with sleep, thinking and remembering, and sexual function. In a word, removing ovaries and fallopian tubes may lower a woman’s quality of life.
Taken together, ovarian cancer is a life-threatening disease that affects the female reproductive system. The cancer often does not cause symptoms at its early stages. This increases the difficulty of detecting and treating the disease. According to the known risk factors for ovarian cancer and related scientific research, we can do something that may help reduce the likelihood of developing ovarian cancer.
Caroline Liu, an editor at Cusabio, contributes content on human health, diseases, lifestyles, and life sciences research news.