Ovarian Cancer

  • Basics

    Ovarian cancer involves abnormal cell growth that begins in the ovaries Figure 01. The ovaries are two small, almond-shaped organs located on each side of the uterus. The ovaries produce female hormones, and also contain eggs, one of which is released every month during ovulation throughout a woman’s reproductive years.

    Click to enlarge: Female reproductive system anatomy

    Figure 01. Female reproductive system anatomy

    Ovarian cancer is relatively uncommonOvarian cancer accounts for only 4% of all cancers in women. The disease occurs most often in postmenopausal women, with the average age of diagnosis around 60 years.

    Because symptoms of ovarian cancer tend to be vague and similar to symptoms of many less serious illnesses, most cases are diagnosed after the cancer has spread beyond the ovaries. About three-quarters of women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed with advanced-stage disease. Typical symptoms of ovarian cancer, such as stomach upset and bloating, are indications of disease that may have already spread. Unfortunately, the symptoms are often mistaken for a gastrointestinal problem, which can further delay the correct diagnosis.

    Ovarian cancer is classified into three major types—epithelial, germ cell, and sex cord-stromal—depending on the part of the ovary in which the disease started.

    • Epithelial tumors develop from cells that make up the surface covering the ovaries. It is the most common type of ovarian cancer, comprising 90% of cases.
    • Germ cell tumors come from the type of cells that form eggs during development. Only about 5% of cases of ovarian cancer are germ cell tumors. They most commonly occur in young women and girls, typically before the age of 30.
    • Sex cord-stromal tumors arise from cells that secrete hormones and form connections within the ovary. They make up less than 5% of cases.

  • Causes

    Inheritance is thought to play a role in ovarian cancer. Genetic mutations known as BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 that increase a woman’s risk for ovarian and breast cancer run in some families, but only account for no more than 5% to 10% of cases. There is also a genetic condition, hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer, that increases the risk of colon cancer, and other types of cancer, including ovarian cancer, in affected families.

    The length of time that women have menstrual cycles can influence the risk for getting ovarian cancer. A woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer is also related to the number of times a woman ovulates throughout her life. Women who are at higher risk include those who:

    • started their menstrual periods at an early age
    • had late menopause; or
    • never interrupted their ovulation with birth control pills or pregnancies.

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