What You Need to Know About Ovarian Cancer

Often difficult to detect, make sure you know the symptoms of ovarian cancer so you can stay safe.

By Michael Bohl
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The Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer (2:24)

What is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancers are types of cancers that begin in the ovaries, the female reproductive organs. Although people generally use the singular term “ovarian cancer”, there are actually many different kinds of ovarian cancers which may impact people at different ages and have differing levels of severity. Broadly, the types of ovarian cancers are as follows:

Epithelial tumors: These tumors range from benign to malignant and are further broken down into several different specific types. They are the most common types of ovarian tumors.

Stromal tumors: These types of tumors are less common but may be discovered earlier due to their symptoms. Stromal tumors commonly produce male or female hormones which could cause vaginal bleeding, cessation of menstrual periods, or hair growth.

Germ cell tumors: Germ cell tumors develop from the eggs and are also divided into several different specific types. While most germ cell tumors are benign, these also have the potential to be malignant.

Who is at risk of developing ovarian cancer?

Older age, a family history of ovarian cancer, and certain genetic mutations (e.g. BRCA1 and BRCA2, the same genes linked to breast cancer) put you more at risk of developing ovarian cancer. Additionally, your risk increases if any of the following apply to you:

  • You are overweight
  • You started menstruating at an early age
  • You went through menopause at a later age
  • You never had children, or only started having children later in life
  • You have used hormone replacement therapy

How can I protect myself against ovarian cancer?

Prevention of ovarian cancer can be difficult, especially since many of the risk factors are impossible to change. One way to at least know if you are high risk is to have yourself genetically tested for the genes that have been linked to ovarian cancer. Then, if you know you are at high risk (e.g. if you carry one of the genetic mutations), you might consider taking oral contraceptives, which have been shown to lower the risk. You may also have surgery to remove the ovaries, although this should only be done if you already have a scheduled operation to remove the uterus for other medical reasons.

What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?

One of the reasons ovarian cancer can be so dangerous is that it is often asymptomatic at first. This means the cancer grows and spreads, but you wouldn’t have any symptoms. As a result, many ovarian cancers are only discovered once they are late stage, which makes them harder to treat. In fact, only 15 percent of ovarian cancers are discovered before the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. If you do develop symptoms, they may include bloating, early satiety, weight loss, abdominal pain, changes in your urinary or bowel habits, fatigue, and menstrual changes.

How is ovarian cancer treated?

Treatment of ovarian cancer depends on the specific type of cancer, its stage, and its spread. Like other cancers, three main options for treatment are surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Hormone therapy may also be effective at treating some ovarian cancers. Palliative care is an option for those who are more interested in remaining comfortable rather than experiencing the side effects of many treatments.

How long can I live with ovarian cancer?

How long you can live with ovarian cancer again depends on the type, stage, and spread of the cancer. However, grouping all ovarian cancers together, only 47 percent of women survive more than five years after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

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Article written by Michael Bohl