Ovarian cancer is a growth of cells that forms in the ovaries. The cells multiply quickly and can invade and destroy healthy body tissue.
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 treatment usually involves surgery and chemotherapy.
When ovarian cancer first develops, it might not cause any noticeable symptoms. When ovarian cancer symptoms happen, they're usually attributed to other, more common conditions.
Signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer may include:
Make an appointment with your doctor if you have any signs or symptoms that worry you.
It's not clear what causes ovarian cancer, though doctors have identified things that can increase the risk of the disease.
Doctors know that ovarian cancer begins when cells in or near the ovaries develop changes (mutations) in their DNA. A cell's DNA contains the instructions that tell the cell what to do. The changes tell the cells to grow and multiply quickly, creating a mass (tumor) of cancer cells. The cancer cells continue living when healthy cells would die. They can invade nearby tissues and break off from an initial tumor to spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body.
The type of cell where the cancer begins determines the type of ovarian cancer you have and helps your doctor determine which treatments are best for you. Ovarian cancer types include:
Factors that can increase your risk of ovarian cancer include:
Inherited gene changes. A small percentage of ovarian cancers are caused by genes changes you inherit from your parents. The genes that increase the risk of ovarian cancer include BRCA1 and BRCA2. These genes also increase the risk of breast cancer.
Several other gene changes are known to increase the risk of ovarian cancer, including gene changes associated with Lynch syndrome and the genes BRIP1, RAD51C and RAD51D.
There's no sure way to prevent ovarian cancer. But there may be ways to reduce your risk:
Tests and procedures used to diagnose ovarian cancer include:
Blood tests. Blood tests might include organ function tests that can help determine your overall health.
Your doctor might also test your blood for tumor markers that indicate ovarian cancer. For example, a cancer antigen (CA) 125 test can detect a protein that's often found on the surface of ovarian cancer cells. These tests can't tell your doctor whether you have cancer, but they may provide clues about your diagnosis and prognosis.
Once it's confirmed that you have ovarian cancer, your doctor will use information from your tests and procedures to assign your cancer a stage. The stages of ovarian cancer range from 1 to 4, which are often indicated with Roman numerals I to IV. The lowest stage indicates that the cancer is confined to the ovaries. By stage 4, the cancer has spread to distant areas of the body.
Treatment of ovarian cancer usually involves a combination of surgery and chemotherapy. Other treatments may be used in certain situations.
Operations to remove ovarian cancer include:
Chemotherapy is a drug treatment that uses chemicals to kill fast-growing cells in the body, including cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs can be injected into a vein or taken by mouth.
Chemotherapy is often used after surgery to kill any cancer cells that might remain. It can also be used before surgery.
In certain situations, chemotherapy drugs may be heated and infused into the abdomen during surgery (hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy). The drugs are left in place for a certain amount of time before they're drained. Then the operation is completed.
Targeted drug treatments focus on specific weaknesses present within cancer cells. By attacking these weaknesses, targeted drug treatments can cause cancer cells to die.
If you're considering targeted therapy for ovarian cancer, your doctor may test your cancer cells to determine which targeted therapy is most likely to have an effect on your cancer.
Hormone therapy uses drugs to block the effects of the hormone estrogen on ovarian cancer cells. Some ovarian cancer cells use estrogen to help them grow, so blocking estrogen may help control the cancer.
Hormone therapy might be a treatment option for some types of slow-growing ovarian cancers. It may also be an option if the cancer comes back after initial treatments.
Immunotherapy uses the immune system to fight cancer. The body's disease-fighting immune system may not attack cancer cells because they produce proteins that help them hide from the immune system cells. Immunotherapy works by interfering with that process.
Immunotherapy might be an option for treating ovarian cancer in certain situations.
Palliative care is specialized medical care that focuses on providing relief from pain and other symptoms of a serious illness. Palliative care specialists work with you, your family and your other doctors to provide an extra layer of support that complements your ongoing care. Palliative care can be used while undergoing other aggressive treatments, such as surgery and chemotherapy.
When palliative care is used along with all of the other appropriate treatments, people with cancer may feel better and live longer.
Palliative care is provided by a team of doctors, nurses and other specially trained professionals. Palliative care teams aim to improve the quality of life for people with cancer and their families. This form of care is offered alongside curative or other treatments you may be receiving.
A diagnosis of ovarian cancer can be overwhelming. In time you'll find ways to cope with your feelings, but in the meantime, you might find it helpful to:
Start by making an appointment with your family doctor or gynecologist if you have any signs or symptoms that worry you.
If your primary care doctor suspects that you have ovarian cancer, you may be referred to a specialist in female reproductive cancers (gynecological oncologist). A gynecological oncologist is an obstetrician-gynecologist (OB-GYN) who has additional training in the diagnosis and treatment of ovarian cancer and other gynecological cancers.
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask other questions that occur to you.
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may make time to go over points you want to spend more time on. You may be asked:
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