Ovarian cancer occurs when cells in the ovaries, the reproductive glands from which a woman's eggs are released, begin to grow rapidly and out of control, forming a tumor.
The ovaries are the two glands located on opposite sides of a woman's uterus * . They are responsible for producing the hormones estrogen and progesterone. During the childbearing years, they are also responsible for releasing eggs for fertilization every month. After the eggs are released by the ovaries, they travel through the fallopian tubes * to the uterus, where they can be fertilized by sperm. After a woman reaches menopause * , the ovaries no longer produce eggs, and they produce a much lower level of hormones.
Cysts are fluid-filled sacs that can form in any structure in the body. Ovarian cysts are fairly common, especially during the childbearing years. They can cause discomfort, swelling, or pressure in the abdomen, pain during sex, difficulty urinating, and weight gain. Ovarian cysts often resolve spontaneously. If they do not resolve, they are removed surgically. Ovarian cysts are usually not cancerous and are not life-threatening.
Ovarian cancer occurs when cells divide and multiply too rapidly. Normally, when old cells die, the body gets rid of them to make room for new cells. These new replacement cells divide and multiply rapidly. This is only a problem when the body cannot rid itself of the old cells, resulting in too many cells. This buildup of cells forms a mass called a tumor. There are two kinds of tumors: benign * tumors, which are not cancerous, and malignant * tumors, which are. While they can both be removed, malignant tumors sometimes grow back. Malignant cells can grow rapidly in the tumor, and they can spread to other parts of the body. This spreading is called metastasis (meh-TAH-ta-sis). As a cancer metastasizes, the patient's prognosis becomes bleaker, which is why early detection of cancer is so important.
Because its symptoms are often nonspecific, ovarian cancer can be very difficult to detect. Women often mistake its symptoms for another condition and do not seek treatment until after the cancer has metastasized.
The most common symptoms of ovarian cancer include abdominal discomfort and/or swelling; pressure in the back, abdomen, pelvis, or legs; nausea; indigestion; pain during sexual intercourse; and fatigue.
Physicians may use several tests to diagnose ovarian cancer. These include:
In order to confirm a diagnosis of ovarian cancer, physicians will perform a laparotomy so that they may do a biopsy *
Treatment for ovarian cancer depends on the stage of the cancer when the cancer is detected. In the early stage of ovarian cancer, the most common treatment is the surgical removal of all visible signs of cancer, including the affected ovary and its fallopian tube, the adjoining lymph nodes * , and attached fatty tissue. Biopsy of any suspected tissues is performed. In these cases, for women of childbearing age, the uterus, healthy ovary, and healthy fallopian tube remain, leaving open the possibility for future pregnancies. In more advanced stages of ovarian cancer, women often undergo a complete hysterectomy, which involves the removal of the uterus, cervix * , fallopian tubes, and ovaries. Any visible signs of cancer in the nearby lymph nodes and attached fatty tissue are also removed. Physicians perform a biopsy on any tissue that appears abnormal. In the event of total hysterectomy, there is no possibility for future pregnancy.
For most women, physicians recommend chemotherapy following surgery. Chemotherapy is treatment with drugs that are designed to kill remaining cancer cells anywhere in the body. Chemotherapy can cause side effects such as pain, nausea, and vomiting. Immunotherapy, which works by boosting the immune system, also showed promise as of 2015.
In addition to these treatments, a healthy diet, plenty of exercise, and a strong support system are also important for women who are battling ovarian cancer.
See also Cancer: Overview • Menopause • Ovarian Cysts • Tumor
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* uterus (YOO-teh-rus) is the muscular, pear-shaped internal organ in a woman where a baby develops until birth.
* fallopian tubes (fa-LO-pee-an toobz) are the two slender tubes that connect the ovaries and the uterus in females. They carry the ova, or eggs, from the ovaries to the uterus.
* menopause (MEN-o-pawz) is the natural decline of reproductive hormones and the end of menstruation. It generally occurs in women during their 40s and 50s. .
* benign (be-NINE) refers to a condition that is not cancerous or serious and will probably improve, go away, or not get worse.
* malignant (ma-LIG-nant) refers to a condition that is severe and progressively worsening.
* ultrasound, also called a sonogram, is a diagnostic test in which sound waves passing through the body create images on a computer screen.
* magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) produces computerized images of internal body tissues based on the magnetic properties of atoms within the body.
* computed tomography scans (kom-PYOO-ted toe-MAHgruh-fee), or CT, is a technique in which a machine takes many x-rays of the body to create a three dimensional picture. Formerly known as computerized axial tomography (CAT).
* biopsy (BI-op-see) is a test in which a small sample of skin or other body tissue is removed and examined for signs of disease.
* lymph nodes (LIMF) are small, bean-shaped masses of tissue containing immune system cells that fight harmful microorganisms. Lymph nodes may swell during infections.
* cervix (SIR-viks) is the lower, narrow end of the uterus that opens into the vagina.