Feature photo by araswami

According to the National Cancer Institute website, ovarian cancer can be defined as a “cancer that forms in tissues of the ovary (one of a pair of female reproductive glands in which the ova, or eggs, are formed). Most ovarian cancers are either ovarian epithelial carcinomas (cancer that begins in the cells on the surface of the ovary) or malignant germ cell tumors (cancer that begins in egg cells).

Because of the fairly intimate area of the body this cancer grows out of, it used to be known as a silent killer. It often only diagnosed once other areas of the body are affected by the spreading cancer. However, symptoms are actually present in the early stages of disease which can lead to early detection. In any case of cancer, early detection a crucial turning point in combating the disease. According to the Mayo Clinic website, “Only about 20 percent of ovarian cancers are found before tumor growth has spread beyond the ovaries. Your chance of surviving ovarian cancer is better if the cancer is found early”.

The female reproductive organs, ovaries, are the size of almonds and are located in the pelvis. These organs produce the female chemicals estrogen and progesterone. They also carry eggs which travel from ovary to a fallopian tube and then to the uterus.

It is very important not to panic when one notices a growth or tumor, or when your health care professional tells you he/she suspects something. It is very important to act quickly, but to keep your cool because, as many of you very well know, there exist two kinds of tumors: benign and malignant.

Tumors classified as benign are not cancerous. They are growths that can be removed easily and won’t grow back. They also do not affect the tissue around the area where they are found and cannot spread to other parts of the body. Malignant tumors are far more serious than benign tumors because they are often cancer. They can be removed but can grow back. They can also spread and infect the tissues surrounding it as well as spread to other regions of the body. Cancer spreads by breaking away from the tumor it was previously housed in and then enter the lymphatic system or the bloodstream. Those cells invade other organs and new tumors form, damaging other organs. This spread is known as metastasis.

Ovarian cysts are found on the surface of or inside the ovary and they tend to contain fluid and in certain cases bits of whole tissue. Most ovarian cysts however, are benign and leave the body without a trace of cancer. A doctor may encounter a cyst that doesn’t go away and that grows larger which he/she will want to further investigate as this could be a telltale sign of malignancy.

Symptoms of ovarian cancer are often general and can be misdiagnosed as common digestive and bladder disorders. According to the National Cancer Institute, these symptoms include “pressure or pain in the abdomen, pelvis, back, or legs, a swollen or bloated abdomen, nausea, indigestion, gas, constipation, or diarrhea and feeling very tired all the time”. Less common symptoms include “shortness of breath, feeling the need to urinate often and unusual vaginal bleeding (heavy periods, bleeding after menopause)”. Even though these symptoms are not always associated with cancer and one must not jump to those conclusions, if a woman begins to suffer one or more these symptoms it is crucial that she visit her health care authority.

There are certain risk factors that could possibly put you at higher risk of developing this type of cancer. If you have a family history of ovarian cancer as well as a history of breast, uterus, colon, or cancer of the rectum your risk may be higher. If you yourself have a personal history of cancer, as removed malignant tumors could grow back, your risk also grows. Women over the age of 55 are at a higher risk and statistically are more likely to develop the cancer than younger women. Women who have never been pregnant also are at risk as well as women who perform menopausal hormone therapy. It has been suggested by a number of studies that women who take estrogen on its own are higher risk as well. There has also been some thought that usage of fertility drugs, obesity or using talcum powder may put women at risk for ovarian cancer, but these are still only assumptions.

A woman who has one or more of these risk factors isn’t guaranteed to develop the cancer. Often times women with none of these known risk factors (with the exception of getting older) develop the cancer. If you are concerned that you have risk factors or just want to be sure, it is crucial that you ask your health care authority to give you screening.

For more information visit the National Cancer Institute’s booklet on ovarian cancer and the Mayo Clinic’s website.

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