What You Should Know About Ovarian Cancer
By Causenta Wellness
Did you know ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cause of cancer death among women? Despite being fairly uncommon, ovarian cancer is considered incredibly deadly. While about 19% of women die from breast cancer, an astonishing 63% die from ovarian cancer. Every year, about 22,000 women in the U.S. will receive an ovarian cancer diagnosis and 14,000 will die from the disease.
As if that’s not bad enough, ovarian cancer rarely has symptoms in the early stages when it’s easiest to treat.
Want to know more about ovarian cancer, what causes it, and how it’s treated? Let’s explore warning signs of ovarian cancer you should watch for and what you need to know about this deadly form of cancer.
The early symptoms of ovarian cancer
So, why is ovarian cancer so deadly? Part of the problem is this type of cancer is often silent with few, if any, early symptoms. The early signs of ovarian cancer are easy to ignore or overlook as they usually come and go and may be mistaken for a common illness like a urinary tract infection (UTI).
While many women do not experience any early symptoms of the cancer, early signs to watch for include:
- An increased need to urinate and/or increase in urination
- Difficulty eating with a feeling of fullness after you eat
- Abdominal pain, bloating, or a feeling of pressure
You may also experience other symptoms that seem vague such as indigestion, heartburn, constipation, and fatigue. Some women experience pain during intercourse and an irregular menstrual cycle due to ovarian cancer.
Note: These symptoms aren’t necessarily caused by the cancer itself. For many women, these symptoms come and go and even respond to simple treatments like antacids for heartburn. When the symptoms are caused by cancer, they typically persist and become more severe with time.
The most important thing to watch for? Persistence of symptoms.
When these symptoms continue for two weeks or longer — or they don’t improve with intervention like laxatives for constipation, rest for fatigue, or exercise for bloating or weight gain — it’s time to see a doctor.
Ovarian cancer causes: are you at risk?
So, what actually causes ovarian cancer to develop? Is there any way to predict which women will develop this form of cancer? It isn’t known what causes most cases of ovarian cancer, but there are several known risk factors for epithelial ovarian cancer, the most common type of the disease. One of the most important recent discoveries is that ovarian cancer doesn’t actually start in the ovaries; it begins at the ends of the fallopian tubes. There are many theories ovarian cancer causes.
It’s believed there’s a link between ovulation and ovarian cancer as birth control medication and pregnancy both reduce the risk of ovarian cancer. Hysterectomy and tubal litigation also lower the risk of developing ovarian cancer, which may mean that cancer-causing substances can enter the vagina and reach the uterus and fallopian tubes. This may be why blocking the fallopian tubes or removing the uterus reduces this risk.
The most important risk factors for ovarian cancer include:
- Never having given birth
- A BMI of more than 30
- Being over 55
- Family history of gynecological, colon, or breast cancer
- Never having taken birth control
- Mutations to the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Most commonly associated with an increased risk of breast cancer, certain mutations to these genes are also responsible for a small share of ovarian cancers.
Ovarian cancer diagnosis
Persistent symptoms that may indicate ovarian cancer should never be ignored; when caught early, ovarian cancer has a very good prognosis. In most cases, a physician will recommend certain tests and exams if you have symptoms or something suspicious is detected during a pelvic exam. A variety of tests are used to confirm an ovarian cancer diagnosis:
- Ultrasound imaging is often the first test to detect cancer of the ovaries. An ultrasound can be used to locate an ovarian tumor and determine if it’s a cyst filled with fluid or a solid tumor.
- Laparoscopy is often used in the ovarian cancer diagnosis process to check the ovaries and other tissue in the pelvis by inserting a video monitor through a tiny incision.
- Bioposy is the only way to be sure if a growth is actually cancerous. With ovarian cancer, bioposy is usually performed as the tumor is removed in surgery.
- CT scans can find large tumors but not small ovarian tumors. This test may be used to check if a tumor has grown into surrounding tissue or locate enlarged lymph nodes.
- Colonoscopy may be used to determine if the cancer has spread to the rectum or colon.
- Chest X-rays are used to check if cancer has spread to the lungs.
Understanding ovarian cancer stages
As with other types of cancer, there are four ovarian cancer stages. Staging describes how aggressive the cancer is and how far it’s spread. Staging the cancer helps the physician develop an effective treatment plan. Ovarian cancer is staged based on tests that measure:
- Whether the cancer has spread to distant areas
- How deeply the cancer has invaded tissue around the ovaries
- The size of the tumor
In stage I, the ovarian cancer is still confined to the ovaries. In stage IA, the cancer is only found in one ovary. Stage IB indicates the cancer is in both ovaries. By stage IC, cancer cells have been found outside of the ovaries. Unfortunately, the signs of ovarian cancer can be silent or very vague. Just 15% of ovarian cancer cases are diagnosed in this early stage. The good news? Women diagnosed with stage I ovarian cancer usually have a great prognosis with a five-year survival of more than 90%.
Stage II cancer indicates the ovarian cancer has spread to other areas of the pelvis. Stage 2A means the cancer has been found in the fallopian tubes or uterus while stage 2B means the cancer has spread to the rectum, bladder, or other nearby organs.
By stage III, the ovarian cancer has spread beyond the pelvis. There are three sub-stages of stage III:
- Stage 3A, the cancer has spread to the abdominal lining and abdominal lymph nodes.
- Stage 3B, the cancer is found outside the liver or spleen.
- Stage 3C, the tumor is at least 3/4″ thick on the abdomen or outside the liver or spleen, but it still hasn’t invaded the liver or spleen.
Stage IV ovarian cancer is the most serious of these ovarian cancer stages and it indicates the cancer has spread beyond the pelvis and abdomen to the lungs or liver. In ovarian cancer stage 4A, cancer is found in the fluid around the lungs. Stage 4B is the most advanced stage and indicates cancer is inside the liver, spleen, or other organs like the brain.
Being diagnosed with ovarian cancer can be very frightening, but prognosis depends a great deal on the stage and type of cancer. The five-year survival rate for stage 1A ovarian cancer is 94% which drops to 85% by stage 1C. The overall five-year survival rate falls as the cancer advances:
- Stage II: 70% survival
- Stage III: 39% survival
- Stage IV: 17% survival
Ovarian cancer treatment: What happens next?
As with other types of cancer, ovarian cancer treatment will depend on the type and stage of the cancer. Treating ovarian cancer usually involves a full team of medical specialists who will work with you to develop a treatment plan. There are two types of ovarian cancer treatment options to understand.
- Local treatments refer to treating the tumor in ways that will not affect the rest of the body. Ovarian cancer is usually treated with:
- Radiation therapy, a treatment that uses high energy X-ray to target a tumor. This treatment is usually reserved for treating cancer that has spread.
- Surgery, the primary means of treating ovarian cancer. In the early stages, the cancer may be treated without removing the uterus and both ovaries, although this is often necessary in later stages. Depending on whether the cancer has spread, sometimes a section of the small intestine and/or colon need to be removed.
- Systemic treatments involve drugs that can reach cancer almost anywhere it’s hiding. These treatments affect the whole body. Systemic ovarian cancer treatment options include:
- Targeted therapy uses specialized drugs that can attack cancer cells without harming healthy cells.
- Hormone therapy is usually used for ovarian stromal tumors, an uncommon type of ovarian cancer.
- Chemotherapy is often combined with surgery to treat ovarian cancer as it can kill even tiny amounts of cancer cells that linger after surgery and it can treat cancer that has spread. It can also be used to shrink large tumors ahead of surgery.