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Ovarian Cancer Facts

Ovarian cancer (malignancy of the ovaries) is the fifth most common female cancer. In the United States, there will be an estimated 22,280 women that will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2012, according to statistics from the National Cancer Institute.

In the U.K., the number of women affected by ovarian cancer in 2008 was around 6,500, according to the charity Ovarian Cancer Action. This amounts to an average of 18 British women being diagnosed every day.

These figures translate to a 1 in 54 chance of getting ovarian cancer in a woman’s lifetime. The majority of cases occur in those over 50.

Types of ovarian cancer are:

Epithelial Tumors – These are on the surface of the ovaries. This is the most common type and accounts for 90 percent of cases.

Borderline Tumors – These are "low malignancy" tumors also found on the surface of the ovaries. Because they are low malignancy, this type of cancer can be treated with surgery alone.

Germ Cell Tumors – This is cancer of the germ cells that would have become eggs. This accounts for 5-10 percent of ovarian cancer cases.

Sex Cord Stromal Cell Tumors – This is cancer of the connective tissue that holds the ovaries together and also produces female sex hormones. This type of cancer is very rare and accounts for less than 5 percent of cases.

Risk Factors

There are certain things that increase your risk of getting ovarian cancer. These are:

  • Never having been pregnant during your childbearing years
  • Being in later life (over 50)
  • Having a family history of ovarian cancer or cancer of the rectum, colon, uterus or breast or a previous history of having any of those cancers
  • Using hormone replacement therapy (HRT) that is an estrogen-only product for more than 10 years
  • Ovarian stimulation for IVF procedures may increase the risk of borderline ovarian tumors, although more studies are needed
  • Being overweight with a body mass index of over 30
  • Having your first period when you are very young or having a late menopause
  • Having a history of endometriosis
  • Being Ashkenazi Jewish, Dutch, Polish, Icelandic, Norwegian or Pakistani.

Ovarian cancer is sometimes referred to as the "silent killer" because women don’t always realize they have cancer until it has spread. Due to this, it has a high mortality rate.

However, the medical profession is working at reducing the death rate by helping women to recognize the early symptoms.

Early Warning Signs

If you develop irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms for the first time when you are over the age of 50, it may be ovarian cancer because it is unlikely that women over this age will get IBS for the first time.

Symptoms to look out for are:

  • Bloating or increased stomach size
  • Persistent stomach pain
  • Feeling full after only a small amount of food
  • Difficulty eating
  • Frequent urination or other urinary symptoms
  • Changes in your bowel habits
  • Back pain and/or excessive fatigue

Although similar, ovarian cancer symptoms are persistent, whereas IBS symptoms can come and go.

If you are over 50 and you suddenly develop these symptoms and they don’t go away, please see your doctor. It may be nothing to worry about, but he can at least rule out serious illnesses.

Treatment

Treatment consists of surgery which will remove the cancer and radiation therapy in an attempt to try to kill off any leftover cancer cells and prevent them from coming back. This is called local therapy.

Sometimes chemotherapy may be offered, which will either be put into the abdomen and pelvis through a tube, taken by mouth, or injected into a vein.

Side effects of chemotherapy are varied, but can include:

  • Depletion of blood cells that help fight infection leaving you more vulnerable to infection
  • Hair loss
  • Appetite loss
  • Diarrhea
  • Sores on your lips or in your mouth
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Joint pain
  • "Pins and needles’ or numbness in your hands or feet
  • Kidney damage
  • Hearing loss

Depending on your stage of cancer, your age and whether you wish to have children or not, you may be given surgery to remove your ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, lymph nodes and the omentum (a tissue layer that covers the intestines).

If you are young, have only stage 1 cancer and you want children, it may be possible to ask your surgeon to only remove one ovary and one fallopian tube, and to leave your uterus intact.

Post-operatively, you may be in some pain and may require painkillers for several days. It can take a few weeks to feel normal again and to be able to do your normal activities.

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