Cancer is a disease in which the cells in the body begin to divide and multiply uncontrollably. Cells in just about any part of the body can become cancerous. Previously, ovarian cancers were believed to begin in just the ovaries, but recent evidence suggests that many cancers actually begin in the cells in the far ends of the fallopian tubes. There are three main types of ovarian cancer – each is distinguishable by the type of cell where cancer begins. These types include:
Epithelial tumors. About 90% of ovarian cancers fall into this category. This type of cancer begins in the thin layer of tissue that covers the outside of the ovaries.
Stromal tumors. About 7% of ovarian cancers fall into this category. This type of cancer begins in the ovarian tissue that contains cells that produce hormones.
Germ cell tumors. This is the rarest form of ovarian cancer, and it tends to occur in younger women. This form of ovarian cancer begins in the egg-producing cells.
There are relatively few early signs of ovarian cancer because early ovarian cancer is not usually symptomatic. Advanced stage cancer can cause a few symptoms, although these symptoms can be easily mistaken for other common conditions. These signs and symptoms include:
One other sign of ovarian cancer, although it is rare, could be the presence of ovarian cysts. Ovarian cysts are usually benign and occur as a normal part of ovulation, but they can be concerning in women who are not ovulating. The doctor may want to run further tests on an ovarian cyst if it is large or if it does not go away after a few months. A small number of cysts can become cancer.
Doctors are unsure of what exactly causes ovarian cancer, but they have identified several risk factors associated with a higher likelihood of developing the disease. These risk factors include:
Age. Ovarian cancer is most common in older women ages 50 to 60 years old, although the disease can occur at any age.
Imaging tests. Imaging tests, such as an ovarian cancer ultrasound or CT scan, can help determine the size, shape, and structure of the ovaries.
Pelvic exam. A pelvic exam involves the doctor inserting gloved fingers into the vagina while simultaneously pressing on the abdomen to feel the pelvic organs to check for abnormalities.
Surgery. In some cases, the doctor may need to remove an ovary to test it for cancer in order to make a definitive diagnosis.
Once a diagnosis is made, the doctor can indicate your stage of ovarian cancer. The stages are indicated using Roman numerals ranging from I to IV – with I indicating that the cancer is confined to the ovaries and stage IV indicating that the cancer has spread to distant areas of the body.
Treatment for ovarian cancer typically involves some combination of medications and surgery.