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Ovarian Cancer

Most ovarian cancers are either ovarian epithelial carcinomas (cancer that begins in the cells on the surface of the ovary) or malignant germ cell tumors (cancer that begins in egg cells). Ovarian cancer cells can break away from the ovary and spread to other tissues and organs in a process called shedding. When ovarian cancer sheds, it tends to form new tumors on the peritoneum or the large membrane that lines the abdomen and on the diaphragm. Ovarian cancer cells can also enter the blood stream or lymphatic system and travel and form new tumors in other parts of the body.

The exact causes of ovarian cancer is not known, however there are certain risk factors that increase the chance of developing the disease. These are family history, age, if you’ve had children, personal history, fertility drugs, talc use, and hormone replacement therapy. About 1 in every 57 women in the United States develop ovarian cancer. Most women are over 50, but it can also affect younger women. Studies have now shown that breastfeeding and taking birth control pills may decrease a woman’s chance of developing ovarian cancer. Also women who have had a tubal ligation or hysterectomy are at lower risk. Evidence also shows that reducing the amount of fat in the diet may lower the risk of developing ovarian cancer.

Ovarian cancer can be hard to detect early. The sooner it is found and treated, the better a woman’s chance for recovery. Many times women with ovarian cancer have no symptoms or just mild symptoms until the disease is in an advanced stage. Some of the symptoms of ovarian cancer may include general abdominal discomfort and/or pain, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, frequent urination, loss of appetite, feeling of fullness even after a light meal, weight gain or loss with no known reason, and abnormal bleeding from the vagina.

Scientists are studying ways to detect ovarian cancer before symptoms develop. They are exploring the usefulness of measuring the level of CA-125, a substance called a tumor marker which is often found in higher-than-normal amounts in the blood of women with ovarian cancer. They are also evaluating transvaginal ultrasounds to help detect the disease early.

To help find the cause of the symptoms a doctor will evaluate your medical history and also perform a physical exam. Tests used to help diagnose ovarian cancer include pelvic exam, ultrasound, CA-125, lower GI series, CT scan, and biopsy. A biopsy is removing some of the tissue to be examined under a microscope by a pathologist for diagnosis. If the diagnosis is ovarian cancer the doctor will want to learn the extent or stage of the disease to see if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. This may involve surgery, x-rays, other imaging procedures, and lab tests.

Treatment depends on the stage of the disease and general health of the patient. Patients are often treated by a team of specialists including gynecologic oncologist, medical oncologist, and radiation oncologist. Some treatment options are surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and clinical trials. A treatment plan that is best for you will be decided by you and your healthcare team.

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