Earlier this week, we wrote about cervical cancer being one of the five major categories of gynecological cancers. Before that we discussed endometrial cancer, a form of uterine cancer, another one of the major groups of gynecological cancers. Today, we will take a look at another type of gynecological cancer – ovarian cancer.
Like the other major types of gynecological cancer, ovarian cancer covers cancer of the ovaries, cancer of the Fallopian tubes and cancer of the peritoneum.
The ovaries are the primary female sex organs as they produce eggs and most of the female hormones, mainly estrogen and progesterone. They are egg-shaped bodies on either side of the body, measuring about an inch and half long. The hormones produced by the ovaries play vital roles in breast development, the female body shape, body hair, regulate the menstrual cycle and control much of what happens during pregnancy and child birth. At some time during menopause, the ovaries stop producing eggs and some hormones while decreasing the amounts of other hormones they produce. This is why so many women end up taking hormone replacements after menopause.
The Fallopian tubes are long cylindrical tubes that connect the ovaries to the uterus. When the ovaries release an egg, it is collected by cilia (hairlike structures) that create a type of current flow leading into the Fallopian tube. The egg travels the length of the tube which empties into the uterus. If an egg is fertilized and implants in the Fallopian tube, it is referred to as an ectopic or Fallopian tube pregnancy. Ectopic pregnancies rarely develop into a normal baby because of the difference in tissue of the Fallopian tube versus the uterus. Therefore, the general procedure for an ectopic pregnancy is to remove it. If not, it can result in severe pain and damage to the Fallopian tube and could place the life of the mother in jeopardy.
The peritoneum is a thin layer of tissue that lines the abdomen. Contained inside the peritoneum are the bladder, Fallopian tubes, ovaries, uterus and rectum. The fluid inside the peritoneum, the peritoneal fluid, acts to lubricate the organs to allow them to move in the abdomen and rub against each other without sticking or causing abrasive damage.
Ovarian cancer (used collectively for cancers of the ovaries, Fallopian tubes and peritoneum) results in more deaths than any other form of female reproductive cancer. However, if discovered early, it is generally treatable.
Because of the deadly nature of ovarian cancer, it’s very important to learn what the signs and symptoms are and to pay attention to your body. The signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer include:
- Vaginal bleeding (particularly if you are past menopause), or discharge from your vagina that is not normal for you.
- Pain or pressure in the pelvic area.
- Abdominal or back pain.
- Feeling full too quickly, or difficulty eating.
- A change in your bathroom habits, such as more frequent or urgent need to urinate and/or constipation.
If you experience any of these symptoms for more than two weeks, see your doctor as soon as possible.
Like, in cervical cancer, one of the risk factors for developing one of the forms of ovarian cancer is age. There is no sure-fire way to prevent ovarian cancer, but doctors have linked the following things that do reduce the risk of developing ovarian cancer:
- Having used birth control pills for five or more years.
- Having had a tubal ligation (getting your tubes tied), both ovaries removed, or a hysterectomy (an operation in which the uterus, and sometimes the cervix, is removed).
- Having given birth.
- Breastfeeding. Some studies suggest that women who breastfeed for a year or more may have a modestly reduced risk of ovarian cancer.
What is the difference between cancer screening and a diagnostic test? Screening is used to look for a cancer before there are any symptoms. Diagnostic tests are used once symptoms have occurred and they are used to determine the cause of the symptoms or the stage of cancer. At the moment, according to the CDC, there is NO definitive screening for ovarian cancer. Pap tests only detect the presence of cervical cancer, not ovarian cancer. This is why it is so important to know what the symptoms for ovarian cancer and then to recognize them if they occur. It is so very important to know your body and what is and isn’t normal and to be honest and open with your doctor if you suspect anything.
Ovarian cancer is generally treated via surgery and/or chemotherapy. In surgery, the cancerous tissue is removed and often results in a partial to full hysterectomy. In cases when detected early, a gynecological oncologist (cancer specialist) may choose to use one of a variety of medications to try to kill the cancer cells and avoid the need the surgery. Again, I can’t express enough the importance of learning the symptoms, knowing your body and seeking help if you suspect you may have a form of ovarian cancer. Sometimes, the symptoms are caused by non-cancerous conditions which can also be treated, but if cancerous the earlier it’s detected, the greater your chances of a full recovery.