Often a silent disease, ovarian cancer is still doing a lot of damage. Fortunately, there are new treatments and therefore more hope.
THE OVARIES—THOSE SMALL WONDERS
The female sexual organs are the epicenter of human reproduction. The primary function of the ovaries is to produce eggs for fertilization. They also secrete female sex hormones called estrogen and progesterone.
Ovaries are almond-shaped (but twice the size) and are located on either side of the uterus. They are attached to the uterus and to the Fallopian tubes by ligaments. Each month (or each menstrual cycle) an egg is released from one of the ovaries and travels to the uterus, where it may or may not be fertilized. If it is fertilized, a pregnancy begins.
Ovarian cancer develops when ovarian cells become abnormal, multiply uncontrollably and form a so-called "malignant" tumour. Sometimes cells grow abnormally and form a mass that is not cancerous; this is called a "benign" tumour (e.g., a cyst). If cancer cells migrate to other organs or areas of the body, this is referred to as metastases.
Ovarian cancer affects mostly women between the ages of 50 and 65. There are various types of malignant (cancerous) and benign ovarian tumours. Initially, a malignant tumour is usually limited to one or both ovaries. When it has time to grow, it may spread to neighbouring organs or to others further away. The earlier an ovarian cancer is detected, the better the chances of recovery.
There are several factors that can increase the risk of eventually developing ovarian cancer. The most important is heredity, that is, the fact that other people in the family have or have had ovarian cancer. Other risk factors that have been identified include:
- never having had children
- a personal history of breast cancer
- a family history of other types of cancer
- smoking, and
- hormone replacement therapy
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS
Ovarian cancer often goes undetected in the early stages. As it progresses, symptoms may begin to appear, such as:
- enlarged abdomen
- presence of a mass upon palpation
- abdominal pain
- feeling bloated
- loss of appetite
- abnormal vaginal bleeding, and
- pain during sexual intercourse
Caution: these symptoms may be due to various medical conditions. If you experience any of them, or any other unusual symptom, see your doctor promptly for a diagnosis.
In light of this, if the doctor suspects ovarian cancer based on their assessment and physical examination, they will need to use a variety of methods to confirm the diagnosis, such as:
- imaging tests
- blood tests, and
- surgical procedures
Many of the diagnostic methods can also determine the stage of the cancer when it is present.
For most women, treatment of ovarian cancer involves surgery to remove the cancerous mass, ovaries or neighbouring organs. In some cases, surgery is sufficient, but other treatment approaches may be necessary.
These other treatment approaches may vary from one person to another depending on age, health, and other factors such as the type of cancer and its stage. Chemotherapy may be considered, as well as radiation therapy, hormone therapy, and the more recently used targeted therapies.
If you are to receive these types of treatments, the medical team will provide you with the information essential to a good understanding of your treatment. Your pharmacist can also provide information and answer your questions.
Once your treatments are completed, close medical follow-up will be necessary to prevent a recurrence. It will be important to keep up with your appointments and medical tests.
It is believed that there are some things you can do to reduce your risk of getting ovarian cancer. Here are some of them:
- Abstain from smoking.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet; avoid sugar and fat.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- If you have a baby, choose to breastfeed.
- Oral contraceptives have been shown to have a protective effect against ovarian cancer. Speak to your doctor or pharmacist about the benefits and risks.
- If you are considering the use of hormone replacement therapy, speak to your doctor or pharmacist about the benefits and risks of this type of treatment.
- Speak to your doctor or pharmacist about the benefits and risks before considering hormone replacement therapy.
Don't hesitate to speak to your pharmacist for additional information about ovarian cancer.