Understanding ovarian cancer
There’s a lot to learn and understand about ovarian cancer. Simply put, ovarian cancer is cancer that starts in the ovaries or fallopian tubes. The female reproductive system is a complex, life-making machine. Home to three different kinds of cells, it may breed potential for cancer to start in any one of those cells and form tumors.1 The cell where the tumor starts may determine the type of ovarian cancer.2 And then, each tumor may be given a stage number and grade (two different things) to diagnose the severity.
What are the types of ovarian cancer?
There are more than 30 different types of ovarian cancer. Here are the three common types of cells where ovarian cancer may start, along with their respective tumors:3, 4
- Surface epithelium: These are cells that cover the outer lining of the ovaries. Tumors that grow here are called epithelial tumors. This kind accounts for about 90% of ovarian cancers.
- Germ cells: These are egg-producing cells. Germ cell tumors are considered rarer and usually show up in younger women.
- Stromal cells: These cells produce hormones. Stromal tumors may often be diagnosed at an earlier stage compared to others.
You might be wondering how a doctor can diagnose a tumor that’s inside your body where nobody can see it. Unfortunately, because these tumors are hidden, ovarian cancer is rarely found early.5 But, there are ways to check for signs.6, 7
- Pelvic exams: Your doctor might perform a pelvic exam (different from a Pap smear) during your yearly physical. This is when your doc places gloved fingers into your vagina to feel your pelvic organs for any abnormalities, like an enlarged ovary.
- Imaging: Things like CT scans or ultrasounds (like a transvaginal sonography) of your pelvic area can help check the shape and size of your ovaries.
- Blood tests: Your doctor can check for tumor markers (like certain proteins) in your blood that may help indicate a sign or risk of ovarian cancer.
- Surgery: Sometimes the only way to be sure of a diagnosis is to remove an ovary and have it tested.
We often rely on symptoms to tell us something may be wrong — a fever, upset stomach or maybe a rash. With ovarian cancer, its signs and symptoms may be common and vague enough that they may not even feel like symptoms at all, which may be the problem. That said, here are three symptoms women have reported:8
- Bloating or belly pain
- Quickly feeling full when eating or drinking
- Urinating urgently or often
Other signs may include extreme tiredness, back pain, constipation, pain during sex or menstrual changes.8 If any of these symptoms last for more than two weeks, get worse or don’t go away with diet, exercise or rest, pay your doctor a visit. Try to document your symptoms as best you can, considering the difficulty of early diagnosis. It may be best to be as detailed as possible.
The cause of ovarian cancer is unknown, but there are a few risk factors that may increase your chances of getting it. Things like:9
- Older age: Ovarian cancer is more common in women 50 to 60 years old.
- Genetics: You can inherit certain gene mutations that may give you a greater chance of having ovarian cancer.
- Family history of ovarian cancer: If two or more close relatives have ovarian cancer, your chances may increase.
- Estrogen hormone replacement therapy: The longer the duration and the larger the dose, the risk might be higher.
- An early period and late menopause: Getting your period at a younger age and/or starting menopause at an older age might increase your risk.
There are fewer ways to help prevent ovarian cancer, but some things have been linked that may help decrease the chances of getting it. They include:10
- Using birth control for at least five years
- Getting your tubes tied, both ovaries removed or a hysterectomy
- Giving birth
- Breastfeeding for at least a year
You may also look to lifestyle habits that might decrease your risk for cancer in general. Things to consider are avoiding tobacco, eating a balanced diet with fruits and veggies, keeping your body at a healthy weight and making regular exercise part of your routine.11
A combination of surgery and chemotherapy is usually the approach to help treat ovarian cancer. Surgery options might include removing one or both ovaries, and/or the uterus. Then chemo is often used after surgery to help kill any remaining cancer cells. Details of a treatment plan may depend on the severity of the cancer, so each person’s journey may be different.12
How can I get checked for ovarian cancer?
If you think you may have symptoms of ovarian cancer, schedule a visit with your primary provider (the doctor or provider you might see for your yearly exam). It’s a good idea to get regular pelvic exams as a way to help check for signs of ovarian cancer. If your doctor has any concerns, they may refer you to someone who specializes in female reproductive cancers. Here’s the information you may consider bringing for a conversation with your doctor:
- Your symptoms
- Your personal and family health history
- Any medicines you may be taking
- Your questions or concerns
Here’s another tip — consider bringing someone with you. You’ll have company in the waiting room and another set of ears to help remember what your doctor may say.