What is ovarian cancer and what are the symptoms?

Ovarian Cancer

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When you think about cancer, the types that first come to mind are likely breast cancer, skin cancer or maybe lung cancer. While it isn’t mentioned as often as the others, ovarian cancer is the ninth most common cancer in women and ranks as the fifth highest cause of cancer death in women.

What is Ovarian Cancer?

Ovarian cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the ovaries: the organs in the female pelvis that produce eggs for reproduction and hormones like estrogen and progesterone.

“Many people also use the term ‘ovarian cancer’ to describe cancers that start in the fallopian tube or peritoneum (abdominal lining) because they behave and are treated similarly to ovarian cancer,” says Amy Brockmeyer, MD, an OBGYN with Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Gilbert, Az.

Ovarian Cancer Symptoms

Abdominal bloating, abdominal or pelvic pain, unintentional weight loss, changes in bowel habits such as constipation or narrow stool, urinary frequency, and feeling full after you first start eating are all symptoms associated with ovarian cancer. However, ovarian cancer’s symptoms can frequently be confused for other ailments, such as gastrointestinal infection, indigestion, or illnesses that mimic ovarian cancer such as peptic ulcer disease, viral gastroenteritis, constipation, urinary tract infection, food allergies, and gastroesophageal reflux disease.

“Advanced stage cancer can often go misdiagnosed or undiagnosed for quite some time,” says Uma Chandavarkar, MD, an OBGYN with Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Gilbert, Arizona.“In fact, most patients are diagnosed when the cancer has already spread throughout the abdomen and pelvis.”

If you are exhibiting some of these symptoms, and they are new, persistent or severe, consult a physician for an evaluation.

How Can You Reduce Your Risk?

While there is no absolute way to prevent ovarian cancer, there are some things you can do to reduce your risk. “Birth control pills keep your ovaries in a quiet state and, when taken for 10 or more years, can reduce your risk of ovarian cancer by 50%,” says Dr. Brockmeyer.

Women with a family history of ovarian cancer, breast cancer or other types of cancers should see a specialist to help decide if genetic testing would be beneficial. For women with specific genetic mutations, removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes can greatly reduce the risk of getting ovarian cancer.

“If you’re having another gynecologic surgery, you may consider having your fallopian tubes removed because there is a growing belief that some types of ovarian cancer may actually begin in the tube rather than the ovary,” Dr. Chandavarkar said.

Ovarian Cancer Treatments

Ovarian cancer is treatable. As with any serious medical issue, you should consult with a physician to decide the best approach for treatment.

Most women are treated with a combination of surgery and chemotherapy. The order in which these are recommended is tailored to each patient. You may start with surgery followed by chemotherapy or chemotherapy followed by surgery. Both are associated with similar survival rates.

For more information on ovarian cancer, or to be evaluated yourself, make an appointment with a Banner MD Anderson physician.

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