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.

Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian Cancer
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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:

Risk factors – factors that increase your chances of developing ovarian cancer.
Reducing your risk – steps you can take that may help decrease your risk of developing ovarian cancer.
Screening – when you don't have symptoms of cancer, screening tests offer a way to determine if you are at risk for or if you have ovarian cancer.
Symptoms – changes in your health that should prompt you to see your doctor for further evaluation.
Diagnosis and prognosis – the steps your doctor will take to find out if you have ovarian cancer. And if you do have cancer, the testing that will determine how far it has progressed.
Treatment – the goals and options for treatment of ovarian cancer.
Living with ovarian cancer – one woman shares her experiences with ovarian cancer.
Talking with your doctor – questions to ask your doctor about your case of ovarian cancer.
Resources – places to go for further information on ovarian cancer.