Cancer InDepth: Ovarian Cancer
Main Page |
Ovarian cancer occurs when ovarian cells divide without control or order. Normally, cells divide in a regulated manner. If cells keep dividing uncontrollably when new cells are not needed, a mass of tissue forms. This is called a growth or tumor. The term cancer refers to malignant tumors, which can invade nearby tissues and can spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor does not invade or spread. Ovarian cancer is a disease in which cancer cells grow in the ovaries. There are several cancers and several more benign tumors that occur in the ovaries.
The ovaries are a pair of organs in the female pelvis that produce eggs and female hormones. They are roughly the size of almonds. They are located adjacent to the uterus—one near the opening of each fallopian tube—so that eggs produced monthly between the onset of menstruation and menopause can readily be picked up by the tubes and delivered to the uterus.
Under the influence of pituitary hormones, the ovaries produce estrogen and progesterone cyclically to regulate ovulation (egg production) and the menstrual cycle. When a woman becomes pregnant, the ovaries change their hormone production in order to sustain the pregnancy. At menopause the ovaries stop producing both hormones and eggs.
Ovarian cancers begin in one ovary and spread directly throughout the abdomen and pelvis. Often the tumors penetrate the capsule of the ovary and spread into the fluid of the abdomen. Consequently they can involve any abdominal or pelvic organ, commonly producing symptoms related to the bladder or the bowels. Unfortunately, because ovarian cancer confined to the ovary rarely causes symptoms, this type of cancer has usually spread by the time it is detected.
Who Is Affected
There are about 25,000 to 30,000 new cases of ovarian cancer every year in the United States. Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths among U.S. women, and the leading cause of death due to cancer of the gynecologic organs. It is increasingly common between the ages of 40 and 80, and is rare before the age of 40. It appears to be more common in industrialized nations.
Causes and Complications
A specific cause of ovarian cancer has not been discovered, but certain risk factors are associated with the disease. For example, heredity is a major determinant; ovarian cancer cells often contain evidence of genetic damage. In some cases, there is a higher than normal risk of ovarian cancer and breast cancer in the same family, and this is usually related to a gene that is inherited. Most cases of ovarian cancer, however, are sporadic and are not associated with an inherited gene.
In a best-case scenario, your physician will detect ovarian cancer during your routine check up. If not, it is likely that the disease will have spread dangerously before you are aware of it. Symptoms include frequent urination, constipation, abdominal swelling, and pain, which can be either gradual or sudden in onset. Urinary and bowel symptoms are caused by metastases (secondary growths) of the cancer directly on the affected organ. Pain can be due to pressure on nerves from the growing masses or from twisting of a tumor on the ovary, causing its blood supply to shut off. Abdominal swelling is due to the release of fluid by the tumor masses. The fluid, called ascites , fills the abdomen and can accumulate in large amounts. In some cases, this fluid can also spread to the lungs and cause shortness of breath.
This Report Covers the Following:
Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine , 14th ed. McGraw-Hill, 1998.
National Cancer Institute Web site.
Available at: http://www.nci.nih.gov/cancer_information
Accessed: November 29, 2002
Last reviewed February 2003 by
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
Copyright © 2007 EBSCO Publishing All rights reserved.