If you have ovarian cancer or are close to someone who does, knowing what to expect can help you cope.
Cancer starts when cells in the body begin to grow out of control. Cells in nearly any part of the body can become cancer and spread.
Ovarian cancers were previously believed to begin only in the ovaries. Still, recent evidence suggests that many ovarian cancers may start in the cells in the far (distal) end of the fallopian tubes.
The ovaries are mainly made up of 3 kinds of cells. Each type of cell can develop into a different type of tumor. Some of these tumors are benign (non-cancerous) and never spread beyond the ovary. Malignant (cancerous) or borderline (low malignant potential) ovarian tumors can spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body and can be fatal.
We don’t yet know precisely what causes most ovarian cancers. We know some factors that make a woman more likely to develop epithelial ovarian cancer. Much less is known about risk factors for germ cell and stromal tumors of the ovaries.
The most recent and essential finding about the cause of ovarian cancer is that it starts in cells at the tail ends of the fallopian tubes and not necessarily in the ovary itself. This new information may open more research studies to prevent and screen for this type of cancer.
There are many theories about the causes of ovarian cancer. Some of them came from looking at the things that change the risk of ovarian cancer. For example, pregnancy and taking birth control pills to lower the risk of ovarian cancer. Since both of these things reduce the number of times the ovary releases an egg (ovulation), some researchers think there may be some relationship between ovulation and the risk of developing ovarian cancer.
Also, we know that tubal ligation and hysterectomy lower the risk of ovarian cancer. One theory to explain this is that some cancer-causing substances may enter the body through the vagina and pass through the uterus and fallopian tubes to reach the ovaries. This would explain how removing the uterus or blocking the fallopian tubes affects ovarian cancer risk.
Another theory is that male hormones (androgens) can cause ovarian cancer.
A risk factor is anything that increases your chance of getting a disease like cancer. Some risk factors, like smoking, can be changed. Others, like a person’s age or family history, can’t be changed. Listed below are all risk factors:
You can reduce your risk of developing the most common type of ovarian cancer, epithelial ovarian cancer. Much less is known about ways to lower the risk of developing germ cell and stromal tumors of the ovaries, so this information does not apply to those types. It is essential to realize that some of these strategies only lower your risk slightly, while others reduce it. Some plans are easily followed, and others require surgery. If you are concerned about your risk of ovarian cancer, talk to your health care professionals. They can help you consider these ideas as they apply to your situation.
Ovarian cancer may cause several signs and symptoms. Women are more likely to have symptoms of the disease has spread, but even early-stage ovarian cancer can cause them. The most common symptoms include:
These symptoms are also commonly caused by benign (non-cancerous) diseases and by cancers of other organs. When they are caused by ovarian cancer, they tend to be persistent and a change from normal − for example, they occur more often or are more severe. These symptoms are more likely to be caused by other conditions, and most of them occur just about as often in women who don’t have ovarian cancer. But if you have these symptoms more than 12 times a month, see your doctor so the problem can be found and treated if necessary.
Other symptoms of ovarian cancer can include:
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, please see your healthcare professional.
The two systems used for staging ovarian cancer, the FIGO (International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics) system and the AJCC (American Joint Committee on Cancer) TNM staging system, are the same.
They both use three factors to stage (classify) this cancer:
Numbers or letters after T, N, and M provide more details about each factor. Higher numbers mean the cancer is more advanced. Once a person’s T, N, and M categories have been determined, this information is combined in a process called stage grouping to assign an overall stage.
The staging system in the table below uses the pathologic stage (also called the surgical stage). It is determined by examining tissue removed during an operation. This is also known as surgical staging. Sometimes, if surgery is not possible right away, cancer will be given a clinical stage instead. This is based on a physical exam, biopsy, and imaging tests done before surgery. For more information, see Cancer Staging.
Cancer staging can be complex, so ask your doctor to explain it to you in a way you understand.
Some treatments are local, meaning they treat the tumor without affecting the rest of the body.
Types of local therapy used for ovarian cancer include:
Drugs used to treat ovarian cancer are considered systemic therapies because they can reach cancer cells almost anywhere in the body. They can be given by mouth or put directly into the bloodstream.
Depending on the type of ovarian cancer, different types of drug treatment might be used, including:
Typically, treatment plans are based on the type of ovarian cancer, its stage, and any special situations. Most women with ovarian cancer will have surgery to remove the tumor. Depending on the type of ovarian cancer and how advanced it is, you might need other types of treatment as well, either before or after surgery, or sometimes both.
Making treatment decisions
Your treatment plan will depend on many factors, including your overall health, personal preferences, and whether you plan to have children. Age alone isn’t a determining factor since several studies have shown that older women tolerate ovarian cancer treatments well.
It’s important to discuss all of your treatment options, including their goals and possible side effects, with your doctors to help make the decision that best fits your needs. It’s also essential to ask questions if there’s anything you’re not sure about.
It is often a good idea to seek a second opinion if time permits. A second opinion can give you more information and help you feel more confident about the treatment plan you choose.
Living as an Ovarian Cancer Survivor
Treatment may remove or destroy cancer for some people with ovarian cancer. Completing treatment can be both stressful and exciting. You will be relieved to finish treatment, yet it is hard not to worry about cancer coming back. (When cancer returns, it is called recurrence.) This is very common if you’ve had cancer.
For other people, ovarian cancer never goes away completely. Some women may be treated with chemotherapy on and off for years. Learning to live with cancer that does not go away can be difficult and very stressful.
Life after ovarian cancer means returning to some familiar things and also making some new choices.
Follow up care
Ask your doctor for a survivorship care plan
Talk with your doctor about developing a survivorship care plan for you. This plan might include:
Your doctor will probably recommend you have a physical exam and pelvic exam every 2 to 4 months for the first couple of years after treatment, then every 3-6 months or so for the next few years.
Whether or not your doctor recommends imaging tests will depend on the stage of your cancer and other factors. CT scans, MRIs, or PET scans may be done depending on symptoms or other concerning signs.
Blood tests for tumor markers
Follow-up for ovarian cancer usually includes blood tests for tumor markers or hormones that help recognize recurrence.
When you’re told you have ovarian cancer
When deciding on a treatment plan
Once treatment begins, you’ll need to know what to expect and look for. Not all of these questions may apply to you, but asking those who do may be helpful.
Only about 20% of ovarian cancers are found at an early stage. About 94% of patients live longer than five years after diagnosis when ovarian cancer is found early.
In addition to regular women’s health exams, the two tests used most often to screen for ovarian cancer are:
TVUS (transvaginal ultrasound) is a test that uses sound waves to look at the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries by putting an ultrasound wand into the vagina. It can help find a mass (tumor) in the ovary, but it can’t tell if a mass is cancer or benign.
The CA-125 blood test measures the amount of a protein called CA-125 in the blood. Many women with ovarian cancer have high levels of CA-125.