Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cause of cancer deaths in women and the tenth most common cancer among women in the world, as per WHO. Among gynecologic cancer – those affecting the uterus, cervix, and ovaries – ovarian cancer has the highest rate of deaths.
In this article, we will give you the required information to understand causes, symptoms to look out for, and the preventive measures you can take which may make it possible for you or someone you know to never get diagnosed with this type of cancer in the first place.
Also since it’s Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, what better time to gain knowledge and spread awareness about this deadly disease?
What is Ovarian Cancer?
Ovarian cancer begins in the ovaries. The female reproductive system contains two ovaries, one on each side of the uterus. The ovaries – each about the size of an almond – produce eggs (ova) as well as the hormones estrogen and progesterone.
Ovarian cancer often goes undetected until it spreads within the pelvis and abdomen. At a late stage, it is more difficult to treat. Early-stage ovarian cancer, in which the disease is confined to the ovary, is more likely to be treated successfully.
Surgery: In most cases, surgery is done to remove cancer. It is often the first option. The extent of the surgery depends on the stage of cancer.
Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is the use of certain medications to destroy cancer cells. Treatment usually involves 3 to 6 chemotherapy sessions or cycles. These will be given 3 to 4 weeks apart, to allow the body time to recover. If cancer returns or begins to grow back again, chemotherapy may be given again to shrink it.
Although various treatment plans (which can be brutalizing) are available when someone is diagnosed with this cancer, it’s best to take preventive measures so that you or a loved one do not have to go through the whole harrowing experience.
What causes Ovarian Cancer?
Ovarian cancer happens when cells divide and multiply in an unregulated way. However, exactly why this happens is not clear.
The following risk factors are linked to a higher chance of developing the disease:
Women with close relatives who have had ovarian or breast cancer have a higher risk of developing this cancer, compared with other women. Genetic screening can determine whether somebody carries certain genes that are associated with an increased risk.
Most cases of ovarian cancer occur after menopause, and especially in women aged over 63 years. It is pretty rare for a woman to be diagnosed with this type of cancer before the age of 40 years.
Women who have had one or more full-term pregnancies, especially before the age of 26 years, have a lower risk. The more pregnancies they have, the lower the risk. Breastfeeding may also decrease risk.
Infertility or fertility treatment
Fertility drugs have been linked to a higher risk of ovarian cancer, especially in women who used them for more than one year without becoming pregnant. Those who are infertile may also have a higher risk than those who are not, possibly due to not carrying a pregnancy.
Women who have received a diagnosis of breast cancer have a higher chance of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
HRT (Hormone therapy) slightly increases a women’s risk of developing this cancer. The risk appears to increase the longer the HRT continues, and returns to normal as soon as treatment stops.
Obesity and overweight
Obesity and overweight appear to increase the risk of developing many cancers. Ovarian cancer is more common in women with a body mass index (BMI) of over 30.
Having surgery on the reproductive organs appears to reduce the risk of this cancer. In women who undergo tubal ligation, this may be reduced by up to two thirds. A hysterectomy may reduce the risk by one third.
Women who develop endometriosis have an around 30 percent higher risk of developing this cancer, compared with other women.
What are the Symptoms?
Although Early-stage ovarian cancer rarely causes any symptoms. Advanced-stage ovarian cancer may cause few that are often mistaken for more common conditions.
Early symptoms of ovarian cancer may include:
- Pain in the pelvis, the lower abdomen, or the lower part of the body
- Back pain
- Indigestion or heartburn
- Feeling full rapidly when eating
- More frequent and urgent urination
- Pain during sexual intercourse
- Changes in bowel habits, such as constipation
As cancer progresses, there may also be:
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
How to prevent it?
Different factors cause different types of cancer. Although there is no proven way to prevent these diseases completely, you may very well be able to lower your risk! Talk to your doctor for more information about your personal risk of cancer.
Certain factors may reduce a woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer:
- Taking birth control pills – Women who took oral contraceptives for 3 or more years are 30% to 50% less likely to develop this cancer. The decrease in risk may last for 30 years after a woman stops taking the pills.
- Breastfeeding – The longer a woman breastfeeds, the lower her risk of developing ovarian and fallopian tube cancer.
- Pregnancy – The more full-term pregnancies a woman has had, the lower her risk.
- Surgical procedures – Women who have had a hysterectomy (removal of the uterus and, sometimes, the cervix) or tubal ligation (having the fallopian tubes “tied” or closed surgically to prevent pregnancy). may have a lower risk of developing it.
It is very important for women who are considering preventive surgery to talk with their doctors and genetic counselors so they can understand the risks and side effects of the surgery compared to their personal risk of developing ovarian cancer.