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Reproductive System Diseases: Ovarian Cancer

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According to the National Cancer Institute, ovarian cancer accounts for approximately three percent of all cancers in women and is the fifth leading cause of cancer-related death among women in the United States. One reason for this is that it often goes undetected until it has spread to other parts of the body. The Mayo Clinic says, at this late stage, ovarian cancer is difficult to treat and is often fatal.

Ovarian cancer starts in the ovaries, the female reproductive organs responsible for producing eggs.

Doctors don’t know exactly what causes ovarian cancer, but they do know certain risk factors can make it more likely to develop. These include being over age 55; inherited gene mutations; family history of breast, colon, uterus, rectum or ovarian cancer; or a personal history of those same cancers.

The Mayo Clinic says women who have never been pregnant have an increased risk. NIH reports women who take estrogen replacement only (not with progesterone) for five years or longer seem to have a higher risk of ovarian cancer.

Having a risk factor doesn’t automatically mean ovarian cancer will develop.

It’s hard to know if a woman has ovarian cancer. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) say the symptoms are often vague and often blamed on other, more common conditions. By the time the cancer is diagnosed, the tumor has often spread beyond the ovaries.

According to Mayo Clinic, signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer may include abdominal pressure, fullness, swelling or bloating; pelvic discomfort or pain; persistent indigestion, gas or nausea; changes in bowel habits, changes in bladder habits; loss of appetite; increased abdominal girth; a persistent lack of energy and low back pain. Other symptoms are unusual vaginal bleeding or bleeding after menopause.

The following tests can diagnose ovarian cancer: physical or pelvic exams, blood tests, ultrasounds, CTs or MRIs of the pelvis or abdomen or biopsies.

In order to determine the best treatment, doctors need to know the stage of the disease. Cancer.gov lists the four stages of ovarian cancer.

Stage I: Cancer cells are found in one or both ovaries.

Stage II: Cancer cells have spread from one or both ovaries to other tissues in the pelvis.

Stage III: Cancer cells have spread to tissues outside the pelvis or to the regional lymph nodes.

Stage IV: Cancer cells have spread to tissues outside the abdomen and pelvis.

Most treatment includes surgery and chemotherapy. The Mayo Clinic says surgical treatment usually involves removing both ovaries, fallopian tubes, and the uterus as well as nearby lymph nodes; and as much cancer as possible from the abdomen. NIH says radiation therapy is rarely used for ovarian cancer in the United States.


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Reviewed August 10, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg R.N.
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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