What is ovarian cancer?
It's a cancer that strikes a woman's ovaries, the small almond-shaped organs that produce and release eggs. Unfortunately, the disease is characterised by symptoms so subtle that they often go unnoticed until the cancer has spread elsewhere.
Most women who develop it, in fact, get a diagnosis only when the disease is far advanced. The cure rate for advanced ovarian cancer is about 20 percent, a number that approaches 50 percent if the initial surgery and chemotherapy is successful.
Each year about 200 women in this country die of ovarian cancer, and about 330 are diagnosed as having it.
Who's at the highest risk?
Women over 50 are most likely to develop this cancer, although it's found in younger women as well. You're also at higher-than-average risk if one or more of the following symptoms is true of you:
- You have a relative who's had endometrial, colon, or breast cancer, especially one in your immediate family.
- You've had endometrial, colon or breast cancer.
- You have the gene BRCA1 or BRCA2 (together, these seem to account for 5 to 7 percent of all ovarian-cancer cases).
Other possible risk factors include a high-fat diet and the use of talc in the genital area, but they remain unconfirmed. A Stanford University study found a higher incidence of ovarian cancer among women who took fertility drugs, but didn't specify which drugs; some research also suggests that hormone replacement therapy may increase the risk of the disease.
Factors that make ovarian cancer less likely are pregnancy, breastfeeding, the use of oral contraceptives, and the absence of possible risk factors like fertility drugs, talc, and a high-fat diet.
Is ovarian cancer always fatal?
No. The earlier the cancer is detected, the greater the chance that treatment will be successful.
What are the signs of ovarian cancer?
A good test for the cancer hasn't been developed yet, although scientists are working on a reliable screening method. But if you consistently experience several of the following problems, make an appointment with your doctor to be on the safe side.
- Digestive pain (gas, nausea, or indigestion).
- Pain in the abdominal and pelvic area.
- Unexplained changes in your bowel movements.
- Unexplained weight loss or weight gain.
- Frequent urination.
- Pain during intercourse.
- A full feeling even after eating a light meal.
How will my doctor check for ovarian cancer?
First you'll have a pelvic exam. Your doctor will examine the area around your ovaries for unusual lumps and will check the ovaries themselves to see if they're swollen. A blood test called CA 125 is sometimes used to screen for ovarian cancer, but it's highly unreliable and experts in the field recommend against its use as a simple screening test.
You may also have an, ultrasound scan, or one of the other tests that provide your doctor with an image of your internal organs. A surgical procedure called a laparotomy is used to confirm the presence of cancer.
Can I be cured?
Yes, if your cancer is caught early. Women diagnosed during the first stage of the disease (they make up nearly a quarter of all cases) are ordinarily treated successfully. For women diagnosed in the later stages of the disease, almost 50 percent live more than five years after the cancer is discovered.
What's the treatment?
Ovarian cancer is usually treated with a combination of surgery and chemotherapy. Sometimes radiation therapy is also used. The surgery is generally what amounts to a radical hysterectomy-removal of the reproductive organs and some lymph glands-and it often takes place as soon as the cancer is found, during the laparotomy.
If you have surgery, chemotherapy usually follows. You may also have radiation therapy, in which a beam of radiation is targeted on the cancer in order to eliminate it. The radiation treatments are painless, although you may find yourself much more tired than usual.
Should I consider alternative treatments?
Increasingly, women with cancer are choosing to use alternative therapies in addition to the standard ones. Special diets, herbal treatments, and visualisation exercises are among the increasingly popular complements to traditional approaches. If you do decide to supplement your treatment with alternative therapies, let your doctor know.
It's especially important to tell him or her about the herbal remedies or supplements you're taking, since some of these can interact with prescription or over-the-counter drugs.
CONSUMER HEALTH INTERACTIVE
Last Editorial Review: 25/1/2010