Ovarian cancer is an abnormal growth located in the ovaries (see pic). It is more common in the industrialised nations, with the exception of Japan
The exact cause of ovarian cancer is unknown. It is the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths in women and is also the leading cause of death from gynecological malignancies. This is because malignant tumours of the ovaries develop quickly. Often, they affect both ovaries and they shed malignant cells relatively early in the disease. These cells, which frequently land on the uterus, bladder, and bowel, can begin forming new tumour growths before the cancer is detected.
In addition to the rapid rate of development, there is not a screening test for ovarian cancer and symptoms of early disease are minimal. Hence 50 per cent of women with ovarian cancer are in the advanced stage of the disease by the time the disease gets diagnosed.
The incidence of ovarian cancer is higher in older women. Over half the deaths from ovarian cancer occur in women between 55 and 74 years of age, and 25 per cent between 35 and 54 years.
The risk factors include poor reproductive history such as infertility, repeated spontaneous abortions and delayed child bearing beyond age 30. Past medical history of breast cancer is known to double the risk of ovarian cancer.
Exposure to asbestos or high levels of radiation, high dietary fat, the use of talcum powder in the genital area and hormonal replacement therapies for post-menopausal women are some of the other risk factors associated with ovarian cancer.
No complete prevention is known. However, having regular pelvic examination and avoiding the above-listed risk factors may decrease the overall risk. Studies have shown that there may be a lower risk of ovarian cancer in patients who have used oral contraceptive pills. There was a 60 per cent reduction in the risk of ovarian cancer following five years or more use of oral contraceptives.
The following are the symptoms of ovarian cancer:
- vaginal bleeding
- sense of pelvic heaviness
- vague lower abdominal discomfort
- abnormal menstrual cycles
- weight gain or loss
- indigestion, increased gas, nausea and vomiting, bloating
Surgery is the preferred treatment and is frequently necessary fordiagnosis. Chemotherapy is most frequently used as adjunctive therapy. Radiation therapy may be considered but is used less often than chemotherapy after surgery.