Ovarian cancer is a rare but deadly form of cancer. Chances for successful treatment are best when the cancer is caught early. However, it’s very difficult to catch early because it spreads quickly and often presents with no symptoms until it’s at an advanced stage.
There are three types of ovarian tumors. All three can either be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). These must be treated as soon as possible to minimize the risk of the tumor spreading or becoming cancerous.
Epithelial cell tumors
These develop on the surface of the ovaries. They are the most common type of ovarian tumors and are frequently found in post-menopausal women. Although most of these tumors are benign, some can be cancerous. Since they are difficult to diagnose until the late stages of the disease, cancerous epithelial tumors can be the most dangerous.
Germ cell tumors
These tumors originate in the ovarian follicles, where eggs are produced. Although most are benign, some can become cancerous.
Stromal tumors of the ovary
These are rare tumors that develop from the parts of the ovaries that produce hormones.
Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer
Ovarian tumors frequently have no symptoms until they are at advanced stages. You may not know you have a tumor until you have a pelvic exam. However, if you do have symptoms, you should make an appointment with your gynecologist as soon as possible. If a tumor has developed to the point where it is causing symptoms, it could be a sign of malignancy. Ovarian cancer tends to spread quickly, so catching tumors early gives you the best chance for a successful treatment.
Some symptoms of ovarian tumors or cancer include:
- Lower back pain
- Severe cramps and persistent pain in the abdomen
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Pain during sexual intercourse
- Frequent or difficult urination
- Nausea or vomiting
- Loss of appetite, feeling full quickly
- Weight gain
If these symptoms are new and are occurring daily for at least two weeks, please make an appointment with your gynecologist.
Ovarian Cancer Risk Factors
Not all tumors are cancerous, but when they are, they can be life-threatening. Cancer is a complicated disease with many compounding risk factors, which may include:
- Age – Post-menopausal women seem to have an increased risk for ovarian cancer.
- Family history of ovarian, colorectal, or breast cancer
- Smoking cigarettes
- Taking fertility drugs
- Never having a child or never breastfeeding
- Hormone replacement therapy
On the other hand, using hormonal birth control (such as birth control pills) can decrease the lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer.
Diagnosing Ovarian Cancer
Typically, your gynecologist will find a mass during a pelvic exam. Although most masses are not cancerous, your doctor will want to test you for signs of cancer. This may involve:
Your gynecologist may test your blood for a protein known as CA-125. High levels of CA-125 can be an indication of ovarian cancer, but it could also indicate other problems like endometriosis or uterine fibroids.
Taking a biopsy or removing the mass completely is the only way to know for sure if a growth is cancerous. A biopsy can be taken during a laparoscopy, where the doctor removes the mass or a sample of the mass by inserting a narrow, flexible tube through a small incision in your abdomen. The sample is then sent to a lab for testing.
Treating Ovarian Cancer
If your gynecologist believes you have ovarian cancer, you will be referred to an oncologist for further treatment. Cancer is a complicated disease that requires aggressive treatment. Treatment for ovarian cancer usually involves chemotherapy and surgery, and because ovarian cancer tends to spread, this may mean removal of other tissues and organs in addition to the ovaries. Your specialist will provide you with recommendations based on the stage of your cancer, the extent to which it has spread, and your wishes for the future.