Ovarian cancer is a malignant tumor, of any histology, on or within an ovary. Because many ovarian tumors are benign but have the potential to become malignant, a broad definition of ovarian cancer includes all ovarian tumors, malignant and benign. Ovarian cancer is classified according to the histology of the tumor, obtained in a pathology report. Histology dictates many aspects of clinical treatment, management, and prognosis.
Ovarian cancer is a term used to represent a group of tumors that arise from different tissues within the ovaries (A female reproductive organ in which ova or eggs are produced). Though most cases are benign (less dangerous form which doesn't spread), some of them may be malignant (spreading to other parts of the body).
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Although experts have not been able to identify what causes ovarian cancer, there are some factors that may put one person at a higher risk of developing the condition:
- Family history: Women who have one or more family members who have suffered from ovarian cancer, breast cancer or colon cancer are at a greater risk of developing the condition. Experts have found that specific genes such as BRCA 1 and 2 - if inherited - can cause the condition.
- Age: Women over the age of 50 are more likely when compared to their younger counterparts to develop ovarian cancer. The risk doubles in women above the age of 60.
- Childbearing and Menstruation: Studies have found that women who have never given birth are more likely to develop ovarian cancer than those who have children. The study also suggested that the number of children a woman has directly correlates to the decrease in risk of ovarian cancer. Those women who reach puberty early (before age 12), have no children or had their first child after the age of 30, and experience menopause after 50 have a greater chance of developing ovarian cancer than others.
- Oral contraceptives and hormonal therapy: While women who use oral contraceptives are less likely to develop ovarian cancer, women who have had hormonal therapy after menopause are at a greater risk of contracting the condition.
- Obesity: An overweight or obese woman is more likely to develop ovarian cancer than her healthy counterparts.
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Traditionally, it was believed that ovarian cancer showed no symptoms until it has affected other organ systems; however in June 2007 the American Cancer Society released a list of possible early symptoms of ovarian cancer. The symptoms include:
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
- Urgent or frequent urination
- Loss of appetite or feeling full quickly
If these symptoms persist or get worse, it is important that you visit your gynecologist for cancer screening. These symptoms do not necessarily mean that you have ovarian cancer; there are a number of harmless conditions that produce similar symptoms and are much more common than ovarian cancer.
There are no definitive screening tests for ovarian cancer, but there are ways that the condition can be diagnosed. If your doctor suspects that you might have the condition he/she is likely to perform the following tests:
- Pelvic exam coupled with ultrasound examination
- Blood test for cancer related markers
- Biopsy is usually done by a gynaecologic oncologist. The doctor takes a sample of the suspected ovary and the stage or presence of the condition is then analysed by a pathologist.
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If a woman is found to have ovarian cancer, the doctor usually uses a biopsy sample to determine the stage of the cancer and how far the cancer has spread. The stage of the cancer is determined by the following markers:
Stage I: When the cancer is confined to one or both the ovaries.
Stage II: If one or both ovaries are involved with spread to the uterus and/or the fallopian tubes or other places in the pelvis.
Stage III: If one or both the ovaries are involved and the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes or other sites within the abdomen.
Stage IV: If both the ovaries are involved and if the cancer has spread to organs outside the abdomen or the liver.
The treatment of ovarian cancer depends on the stage of the cancer, the type of cells involved, overall health and the age of the patient. There are mainly three types of treatment options for ovarian cancer and they may be used in combination:
- Surgery: This is when the gynaecologic oncologist surgically removes the ovary and other tissues that may be affected by the cancer.
- Chemotherapy: The oncologist uses drugs to kill the cancer cells.
- Radiation treatment: This treatment involves the use of high energy ionizing radiation to kill the cancer cells.
Treatment of cancer is a long-drawn process with several stages. If you have been diagnosed with the condition, remember that it is not a death sentence; cancer is curable if caught early. Get your family or friends to support you through the procedure and if required get some counselling.
Indian women are among the last ones to visit the doctor when it comes to their own health. This coupled with lack of awareness has been the major driver for ovarian cancer cases to increase. Because this condition usually occurs during menopause, most women ignore the symptoms, and further delay the treatment process. Anything out of the ordinary should be checked by a trained physician and treated accordingly.
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