Each year, about 22,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The symptoms of ovarian cancer are often common and vague, which makes it difficult to diagnose.
There are more than 30 different types of ovarian tumors, which are categorized according to the cell type. Some are benign (noncancerous) and do not spread beyond the ovary. Malignant (cancerous) tumors can spread to other parts of the body.
Currently, there is no effective early detection method for ovarian cancer. It is usually diagnosed in advanced stages, and only about half of women survive longer than five years after diagnosis. For the 25% of ovarian cancers that are found early, the five-year survival rate is greater than 90%.
Studies have shown that prognosis and survival depend largely on how much tumor is left at the time of initial surgery. Patients who have no remaining tumor or with nodules less than one centimeter in diameter have the best chance for cure and long-term survival.
There are more than 30 different types of ovarian cancer, categorized by the type of cell where they originate. The three most common types of ovarian cancer are:
Epithelial tumors occur in the epithelium, which is the tissue that covers the outside of the ovary. About 90% of ovarian cancers are of this type. The risk of epithelial ovarian cancer increases with age and occurs mostly in women over 60, but can develop at any age.
Germ cell tumors originate in the egg-producing cells found within the ovary. This type of ovarian cancer can occur in women of any age, but mostly affects adolescents and young adults under age 30. About 5% of all ovarian cancers are germ cell tumors.
Sex cord stromal tumors develop in the connective tissue that holds the ovary together and produces the female hormones estrogen and progesterone. Sex cord stromal tumors are relatively rare, representing about 5% of all ovarian cancers. Women may feel some pain and abdominal discomfort in the early stages of disease.
Most women with ovarian cancer have some symptoms. However, these symptoms are often vague and may be attributed to less serious ailments such as indigestion, weight gain or the consequences of aging.
Contact your doctor if any of the following symptoms occur:
The exact causes of ovarian cancer are unknown, but women with certain risk factors may be more likely to develop the disease. While the presence of one or more risk factors may increase a woman's risk, it does not necessarily mean that she will get ovarian cancer. Identified risk factors include:
Age: The risk of ovarian cancer increases with age and occurs most often in women over the age of 50, with the highest risk in women over 60.
Family history: If one or more first-degree relatives (mother, daughter, sister) or a second-degree relative (grandmother, aunt) had ovarian cancer.
Hereditary cancer predisposition: Approximately 10-15% of ovarian cancers are due to a hereditary cancer predisposition. The most common hereditary cause for ovarian cancer is a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. Ovarian cancer patients who have a personal history of breast cancer, a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, or who are of Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish ancestry should discuss the possibility of hereditary cancer with their health care provider. For more information on hereditary cancer, visit theClinical Cancer Genetics web site.
Childbearing: Women who have never had children have a higher risk. The more children a woman has, the less likely she is to develop ovarian cancer.
The link between the risk factors listed below and ovarian cancer are controversial and have not been definitively proved:
Fertility drugs may slightly raise a woman's chance of developing ovarian cancer. However, no reports have proven this association, and researchers are still studying whether there is a link.
Talcum powder used to contain asbestos, a known cancer-causing agent, but federal laws have required that all powders be asbestos-free since the mid-1970s. Some studies suggest that longtime use of talcum powder in the genital area may increase the risk of ovarian cancer.
Hormone replacement therapy: Some studies suggest that women who use hormone replacement therapy after menopause may have a slightly increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.
Obesity: New data suggest that obesity and ovarian cancer may be linked. The association between obesity and uterine (endometrial) cancer is already well-documented, and several studies have now demonstrated an increased risk for ovarian cancer in obese women.
Unlike a Pap test for cervical cancer or a mammogram for breast cancer, there is currently no reliable test to screen healthy women for ovarian cancer. Diagnosing ovarian cancer may include any or all of the procedures below:
In a pelvic exam, the doctor inserts one or two gloved fingers into the vagina and presses on the lower abdomen with the other hand. Sometimes this exam involves placing a finger in the vagina and rectum at the same time to feel structures deeper in the pelvis. A pelvic exam helps determine if there is a mass on either side of the uterus, which may indicate the presence of an ovarian tumor. If ovarian cancer is diagnosed, the doctor will also need to check to see whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
CA-125 Blood Test
This blood test measures the level of a protein, CA-125, which is produced by ovarian cancer cells. CA-125 is known as a tumor marker because it is usually present at higher levels in women with ovarian cancer. CA-125 is most reliable when used to detect recurrent disease in women previously treated for ovarian cancer. Doctors generally look at the trend in CA-125 levels over time rather than individual test results. If the level is high before treatment, it can be used to monitor the effectiveness of chemotherapy. These levels can help predict treatment outcomes for fallopian tube cancer and primary peritoneal cancer, as well as ovarian cancer.
The CA-125 test alone cannot diagnose ovarian cancer, and is currently not effective in screening healthy women. A high level of CA-125 does not necessarily mean ovarian cancer is present. Conditions such as abdominal inflammation, recent surgery, fibroids, endometriosis, ectopic pregnancy or a ruptured cyst can all cause an increase in CA-125. At the same time, low levels of CA-125 do not mean you are cancer-free, since some types of ovarian cancer produce only low levels of CA-125 or none at all.
In this procedure, a wand-shaped scanner is inserted into the vagina. It sends out sound waves and receives echoes as they bounce off the ovaries, creating electronic images viewed by the doctor on a small screen. A radiologist interprets the pictures and reports the findings to the doctor. Transvaginal ultrasound can show any growths on or near the ovaries, although doctors cannot determine whether they are cancer just by looking at them. This procedure is usually performed in a clinic setting or doctor's office.
The only way to confirm a diagnosis of ovarian cancer is for a pathologist to look at the ovarian tissue. A sample of tissue is usually obtained during surgery. Read more about surgery in the Treatment section.
Women at high risk for ovarian cancer because of personal or family history may be encouraged by their doctor to undergo additional testing, which may include genetic tests. Many women find this information helpful in making important decisions about prevention strategies for themselves and their children. There are benefits and risks with genetic testing, so women should discuss it with their doctor.
Blood tests are available to determine the presence of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, which also cause breast cancer, and for genes involved in Lynch syndrome, an inherited colon cancer syndrome. In women believed to be carrying one of these mutations, a blood test may help determine whether they are at high risk for ovarian cancer (as well as breast, uterine or colon cancer, depending on the gene).
The stage of ovarian cancer describes the extent to which the tumor has spread outside the ovary to nearby tissues and other parts of the body. Staging is done during the surgical biopsy, and generally requires removing lymph nodes, samples of tissue from the diaphragm and other abdominal organs, and fluid from the abdomen. When diagnosed early (Stage I), a woman has a 95% chance of being cured. However, only 25% of ovarian cancer cases are diagnosed in early stages. Ovarian cancer staging is as follows:
Stage I: The cancer is limited to the ovary or ovaries.
Stage IA: The tumor is limited to the inside of one ovary
Stage IB: The tumor is limited to the inside of both ovaries
Stage IC: The tumor is limited to one or both ovaries. In addition, it appears on the surface of the ovary, a fluid-filled capsule has burst or cancer cells are found in abdominal fluid.
Stage II: The cancer is in one or both ovaries and has spread to other parts of the pelvis.
Stage IIA: The tumor has spread to the uterus, fallopian tubes or both
Stage IIB: The tumor has spread to the bladder, rectum or colon
Stage IIC: The tumor has spread to any of the above. Also, it appears on the surface of the ovary, a fluid-filled capsule has burst, or cancer cells are found in abdominal fluid.
Stage III: The cancer is in one or both ovaries and has spread to nearby lymph nodes or other abdominal organs, not including the liver.
Stage IIIA: The tumor has spread to the lining of the abdomen but cannot be seen. The cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes.
Stage IIIB: The cancer has spread into the abdomen and is visible (less than two centimeters, about 3/4 of an inch, in size). The cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes.
Stage IIIC: The cancer has spread into the abdomen and the deposits measure larger than two centimeters. The cancer has spread to the lymph nodes.
Stage IV: The cancer has spread to the lung, liver or other distant organs.
Recurrent ovarian cancer: The cancer has come back after it has been treated. It may appear in other parts of the body, but is still considered ovarian cancer.
Women with ovarian cancer are usually treated with surgery and chemotherapy. Radiation may be used in some cases. Treatment of ovarian cancer depends on a number of factors, including:
Surgery is the primary treatment for ovarian cancer. The first step is a surgical biopsy to take a sample of the suspicious tissue. Once cancer is confirmed, the surgeon determines the stage of the cancer based on how far it has spread from the ovaries. If the disease appears to be limited to one or both ovaries, the surgeon will take samples of nearby tissues from the pelvis and abdomen to determine whether the cancer has spread.
If there is obvious spread, the surgeon will attempt to remove as much of the tumor as possible during the biopsy. This procedure is called debulking or surgical cytoreduction. Debulking involves removing the ovaries, uterus, cervix, fallopian tubes and omentum (fatty tissue around these organs), and any other visible tumors in the pelvic and abdominal areas. This may include the removal or partial removal of other organs such as the spleen, lymph nodes, liver or intestines. Reducing tumor size improves the efficiency of chemotherapy and radiation therapy, since there is less tumor to treat.
While debulking is generally performed during the surgical biopsy, the patient's overall health may not allow it or the tumor may be attached to critical organs. For these patients, any remaining tumor will be treated with chemotherapy.
Most ovarian cancer patients will require chemotherapy after surgery to destroy any lingering tumor cells. The standard chemotherapy treatment for ovarian cancer is paclitaxel plus a platinum-based drug such as carboplatin or cisplatin. Most chemotherapy treatments are given on an outpatient basis in a three- to four-week cycle. The length of treatment and the dose will vary depending on the stage of the disease.
Chemotherapy can also be delivered directly into the abdominal cavity, a procedure known as intraperitoneal therapy or IP therapy. The chemotherapy is infused into the peritoneal space, where it will come in direct contact with the cancer. IP therapy can be used to treat ovarian cancer if only a small amount of tumor remains after debulking. IP therapy can be given in an outpatient or inpatient setting through an implanted port or external catheter. The treatment takes about two hours.
Although radiation therapy is rarely used to treat ovarian cancer, it may be used to kill any remaining cancer cells in the pelvic area if the cancer has returned after other treatments. In most cases, the main goal of radiation therapy is to control symptoms such as pain, not to treat the cancer.
The Ovarian Cancer Support Group
The Ovarian Cancer support group is an educational group open to all women with ovarian cancer. Family members, friends and women receiving treatment for ovarian cancer are all welcome to attend group meetings. Group members include women who are newly diagnosed, undergoing treatment, have recurrent disease or are in remission.