Ovarian cancer starts in the ovaries. The female reproductive system contains two ovaries, one on either side of the uterus. The ovaries – each the size of an almond produce eggs (ova) and the hormones estrogen and progesterone.
Ovarian cancer can go undetected until it spreads to the abdomen and pelvis. Ovarian cancer is more difficult to treat at this advanced stage. Ovarian cancer at early stage, in which the disease is confined to the ovary, is more likely to be treated successfully.
Chemotherapy and surgery are generally used to treat ovarian cancer.
Early stage ovarian cancer rarely causes symptoms.
The signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer are:
- Abdominal bloating or swelling
- Quickly feel full when eating
- Discomfort in the pelvis area
- Changes in bowel habits, such as constipation
- Frequent need to urinate
When to see a doctor
If you have a family history of breast cancer or ovarian cancer, talk to your doctor about your risk for ovarian cancer. Your doctor may refer you to a genetic counselor to discuss screening for certain genetic mutations that increase your risk for breast and ovarian cancer.
It is not known what causes ovarian cancer, although doctors have identified factors that can increase the disease risk.
Usually, cancer starts when errors (mutations) develops in DNA of a cell. Mutations tell the cell to grow and multiply rapidly, creating a huge no. (tumor) of abnormal cells. The abnormal cells continue to live when the healthy cells die. They can invade nearby tissues and break away from an initial tumor to spread elsewhere in the body (metastasize).
Types of ovarian cancer
The type of cell where the cancer starts determines the type of ovarian cancer you have. Types of ovarian cancer include:
- Epithelial tumors start in the tissues thin layer and that covers the ovaries outside part also. About 90% of ovarian cancers are epithelial tumors.
- Stromal tumors, which start in ovarian tissue that contains hormone-producing cells. At an earlier stage, these tumors are usually diagnosed than other ovarian tumors. About 7 percent of ovarian tumors are stromal.
- Germ cell tumors, which start in egg-producing cells. In younger women, these rare ovarian cancers tend to occur.
Factors that can increase your risk for ovarian cancer can be:
- An older age. Ovarian cancer can occur at any age, but it is more common in women between the ages of 50 and 60.
- Inherited genetic mutations. A small percentage of ovarian cancer is caused by genetic mutations inherited from your parents. Breast cancer gene 1 (BRCA1) and breast cancer gene 2 (BRCA2) are the genes that are known to increase the ovarian cancer risk. These genes also increase the breast cancer risk.
Other genetic mutations, including those associated with Lynch syndrome, are known to increase the risk of ovarian cancer.
- Family history of ovarian cancer. People with two or more close relatives who have ovarian cancer are at an increased risk of getting the disease.
- Replacement therapy of estrogen hormone, especially with long-term use and in large doses.
- Age at which menstruation started and ended. Starting menstruation at an early age or starting menopause at a later age, or both, can increase your risk for ovarian cancer.
To prevent ovarian cancer there is no sure way. But there are ways to lower your risk:
- Consider taking birth control pills. Ask your doctor if the birth control pill is right for you. Risk of ovarian cancer is reduced in women who use oral contraceptives. But oral contraceptives come with risks, so discuss whether the benefits outweigh those risks depending on your situation.
- Discuss your risk factors with your doctor. Talk to your doctor if you have a family history of breast and ovarian cancer. Your doctor can determine what this may mean for your own cancer risk. In some cases, your doctor may refer you to a genetic counselor who can help you decide if genetic testing is right for you. If you have a genetic mutation that increases your risk for ovarian cancer, you may consider surgery to remove your ovaries to prevent cancer.