Ovarian cancer is one of the fifth most common cancers effecting women today. It can have disastrous affects on your health and fertility, and is very often life-threatening. More than 20,000 women in North America will develop the disease every year and, unfortunately, many will not be diagnosed until the later stages of the disease. As a result, 16,000 women die each year. It is important that every woman be aware of ovarian cancer symptoms and take steps in order to ensure early detection and treatment.
What is Ovarian Cancer?
We have all heard of cancer before, but what exactly is it? Cancer occurs when certain cells in your body begin to grow rapidly and abnormally. Ovarian cancer occurs when the cells in your ovaries begin to multiply and grow out of control. As a result, tumors (growths made up of these cancerous cells) begin to form. There are a number of different types of ovarian cancer, differentiated between the type of cells in which the cancer first begins to form.
Types of Ovarian Cancer
Ovarian cancer is classified according to the type of cell in which the cancer begins to form. Certain types of cancer are more prevalent than others, and all are associated with different survival rates. The types of ovarian cancer include:
Epithelial: Epithelial ovarian cancer begins in the tissue that covers the ovaries. It accounts for 85% to 90% of all ovarian cancers. Epithelial tumors are most likely to occur in postmenopausal women. When you hear about ovarian cancer, it is typically this type of ovarian cancer that people are referring to.
Germ Cell: Germ cell ovarian cancer occurs in the cells responsible for producing the eggs that you release during ovulation. This type of ovarian cancer is much more rare, and usually affects teenagers and women in their 20s. 90% of germ cell ovarian cancers can be cured.
Stromal: Stromal cancer forms in the tissue cells that help to hold together your ovaries. This type of ovarian cancer is very rare, but it is considered a low-grade cancer which can usually be successfully treated.
Ovarian Cancer Stages
In order to measure the extent of the disease, ovarian cancer is divided into stages. It is best to be diagnosed in the early stages of the illness, in order to ensure the most effective treatment. Unfortunately, 90% of women are diagnosed in advanced stages of ovarian cancer.
- Stage 1: Stage 1 marks the beginning of the disease. During this stage, cancer is present in one or both of your ovaries.
- Stage 2: During this stage, cancer is present in one or both of your ovaries but has also extended into the pelvic cavity.
- Stage 3: Stage 3 ovarian cancer is present in one or both of the ovaries but has also spread to the abdominal lining and lymph nodes.
- Stage 4: Stage 4 ovarian cancer is the most advanced form of the disease. During this stage, one or both ovaries are cancerous and the illness has also spread to different parts of the body, such as the lungs.
Who's At Risk?
Ovarian cancer tends to affect women of menopausal years, though it can plague women of all ages. Typically, a woman has a 2% risk of developing the disease during her lifetime, however, certain factors can increase this risk. Women who are at the highest risk for developing the cancer are those with a gene defect called BRCA-1 or BRCA-2 (these genes are also highly associated with breast cancer). Those who have first-degree family members (sister, mother, daughter) with ovarian cancer are also at increased risk. Other risk factors include:
- having ovarian cysts, especially after menopause
- having had no children
- never having used the birth control pill
- having used hormone replacement therapy
Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer
The problem with ovarian cancer is that so many of the symptoms
are often overlooked - many women don't recognize their symptoms. Signs of ovarian cancer are also frequently confused with other illnesses, especially gastrointestinal complications like irritable bowel syndrome. Ovarian cancer symptoms include:
- abdominal swelling or bloating
- abdominal pain
- persistent indigestion, gas, and nausea
- low back pain
- unexplained weight loss or gain
- irregular menstrual bleeding
- painful intercourse
- change in bowel and urinary habits
If you notice any of these ovarian cancer symptoms, make an appointment with your health care provider. Early diagnosis and treatment is important in increase your chances of survival.