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Medical & Legal Information on Ovarian Cancer: Causes & Treatment Options
• Ovarian Cancer Overview
• The Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer
• Ovarian Cancer Causes
• Ovarian Cancer Risk Factors
• Diagnosing Ovarian Cancer
• Available Treatments and Medications
• Coping with the Disease
Ovarian Cancer Overview
Ovarian Cancer originates in one of the two ovaries and possible in a woman’s uterus. This disease is often undetected until it metastasizes (spreads) within the abdomen and pelvis. During the late stage of the disease, the cancer becomes significantly more difficult to treat, eventually leading to death. However, ovarian cancer during the early stage is often easier to treat successfully because it is confined to one or both ovaries.
Statistics maintained and released by the National Cancer Institute reveal that more than 22,000 women in the U.S. were diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2016, representing approximately 1.3 percent of all newly diagnosed cancer cases. In addition, more than 14,000 women likely succumbed to the disease that year, representing 2.4 percent of all cancer deaths in America.
Women diagnosed with ovarian cancer have a 46.2 percent chance of surviving the condition after five years if detected early and treated. If the disease cannot be localized, it can possibly metastasize or spread to other distant parts of the body.
The Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer
Women with early-stage ovarian cancer rarely experience any symptoms. However, the disease in its advanced stage often presents nonspecific symptoms that are believed to be more common conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and constipation. The most common symptoms and signs involved with ovarian cancer include:
- Frequently needing to urinate
- Unexpected weight loss
- Abdominal swelling or bloating
- Quickly feeling full at meals
- Constipation another bowel habit changes
- Pelvis area discomfort
A family history of ovarian cancer and breast cancer tend to increase the potential risk of all female offspring. Doctors typically recommend that these women seek the advice of genetic counselors to discuss all the options for tests to determine if they have any genetic mutation that could increase the potential risk of developing ovarian and breast cancers.
Ovarian Cancer Causes
Researchers, doctors, and scientists have yet to find a clear and concise reason why women develop ovarian cancer. It is generally thought that the cancer starts as a genetic mutation of normal ovary cells that form into malignant (abnormal) cancer cells.
These cells are significantly different than healthy cells that grow, multiply (reproduce) and die off. Instead, the cancer cell multiplies quickly, forming a tumor (tissue mass) and repeats the process continually without ever dying. Without early detection of the disease, the cancer cells can invade nearby organs and tissue and eventually spread (metastasize) to distant sites in the body including the brain, lung, liver and other organs.
Ovarian cancer is categorized by the type of cells that are growing abnormally. The three major ovarian cancer types involve:
- Stromal Tumors – Abnormal ovarian tissue hormone-producing cells are usually diagnosed early on compared to other ovarian tumors. Stromal tumors represent approximately seven percent of all ovarian tumors.
- Epithelial Tumors – Abnormal thin tissue (epithelial) layers covering the ovary’s exterior can form epithelial tumors, which represents approximately 90 percent of all ovarian cancers.
- Germ Cell Tumors – This type of abnormal cell tissue starts in egg-producing cells. This type of ovarian cancer is extremely rare and often happens to younger women.
Ovarian Cancer Risk Factors
Scientists, researchers, and doctors know that there are certain factors that have the potential of increasing a woman’s chances of developing ovarian cancer. Some of these factors include:
- Fertility treatments
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome
- IUD (intrauterine device) usage
- Never becoming pregnant
- Age – Women between 50 and 60 years of age have a higher incident rate of developing ovarian cancer.
- Estrogen Hormone Replacement Therapy (EHRT) – especially when women take large doses or use the therapy long-term.
- Inherited Gene Mutation – A tiny percentage of all cancers of the ovary are the result of an inherited gene mutation. Colon cancer-related Lynch Syndrome Gene Mutation is known to increase the women’s potential of developing ovarian cancer.
Women who have a genetic predisposition to cancer the ovaries should consult the advice of a gynecologist who may recommend blood tests and routine pelvic imaging to screen for ovarian cancer.
Diagnosing Ovarian Cancer
Diagnosing the disease requires a pelvic examination and a comprehensive family and personal history. The doctor may also recommend other tests that include
- Imaging – CT scans and ultrasounds of the pelvis and abdomen can assist the doctor in determining the structure, shape, and size of the ovaries.
- Blood Tests – These tests can detect the presence of CA 125, a protein found in the surface structure of ovarian cancer cells.
- Surgical Procedures – Surgery including a biopsy (tissue sample) along with obtaining abdominal fluid can help the doctor confirm a diagnosis of cancer of the ovaries. Additional robotic surgeries and minimally invasive procedures might also be an option to confirm a diagnosis of the condition.
If the doctor discovers cancer, the surgeon may choose to immediately start surgery to minimize the potential spread of the disease.
Staging the Disease
If the presence of ovarian cancer is detected, the doctor will stage or categorize the extent of the disease to help better determine the patient’s prognosis and all available treatment options. These stages include:
- Stage I – At this early stage, the cancer is detected and identified in one or both ovaries.
- Stage II – At this stage, the cancer has metastasized from the ovaries to other areas in the pelvis.
- Stage III – At this advancing stage, the cancer has metastasized into the abdomen.
- Stage IV – At this most advanced age, the cancer has metastasized (spread) to distant locations outside of the abdomen which could include the lungs, brain or liver.
Available Treatments and Medications
Once ovarian cancer has been diagnosed and staged, the doctor will recommend one or more available treatments and medications to either attempt to cure the cancer or manage it. The most common ovarian cancer treatments include:
- Surgery – Removal of one or both ovaries along with the uterus and fallopian tubes can help minimize the spread of the disease to other areas of the body. Usually, the surgeon will excise nearby lymph nodes and the omentum (folds of fatty abdominal tissue) where the cancer tends to spread first.
Less extensive surgical options may be recommended if the disease is in its early stage. The doctor may only remove one ovary and its associated fallopian tube, which can preserve the ability for the woman to have children in the future.
- Chemotherapy – After the surgical procedure has been completed, the doctor will likely recommend chemotherapy therapy as a way to kill off any remaining malignant ovarian cancer cells. Typically, chemotherapy medications are injected into the abdomen, through a vein, or both. This type of therapy is also effective as an initial treatment for advanced ovarian cancer.
Coping with the Disease
Women facing a diagnosis of ovarian cancer are often emotionally overwhelmed. However, there are effective ways to cope with the doctor’s findings that include:
- Develop a support team of family and friends
- Let others help you by being useful during treatments and after care
- Take time to relax, eat well and get sufficient rest to handle the fatigue and stress associated with cancer treatments.