Ovarian cancer is the most serious gynecological cancer in women. Fortunately, it is possible to overcome it, especially if it is detected early.
The ovaries—those small wonders
The female reproductive system represents the epicenter of human reproduction, being hailed as a true miracle of nature. The ovaries' primary function is to produce ova for the purpose of fertilization. They also secrete female sex hormones called estrogen and progesterone.
Ovaries are almond-shaped (although 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 at every menstrual cycle) an ovum 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, multiplying out of control and forming a tumour said to be "malignant". Cells can also develop abnormally, forming a mass that is not cancerous; this is called a "benign" tumour (e.g. a cyst). If cancerous cells spread to other organs or areas of the body, this is referred to as metastases.
Ovarian cancer especially affects women between the ages of 50 and 65. There are various types of malignant (cancerous) or benign ovarian tumours. In the beginning, a malignant tumour usually affects a single or both ovaries. When it has the opportunity to progress, it can spread to neighbouring organs or to other organs that are further away. The earlier ovarian cancer is detected, the better the chances of recovery.
Several factors can increase the risk of potentially developing ovarian cancer. The most significant factor is heredity, that is, if other people in the family have or have had this type of cancer. Other risk factors have also been identified, such as:
- 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 first stages of the disease. As it develops, symptoms may begin to manifest themselves, such as:
- enlarged abdomen
- presence of a mass upon palpation
- abdominal pain
- bloated feeling
- loss of appetite
- abnormal vaginal bleeding, and
- pain during sexual intercourse
Warning: these symptoms can be due to various medical conditions. If you have some of these symptoms, or any other unusual symptom, see your doctor promptly to obtain a diagnosis.
If, in light of his/her evaluation and a physical examination, your doctor suspects ovarian cancer, he/she will use various methods to confirm a diagnosis, for example:
- imaging tests
- blood tests, and
- surgical interventions
Several diagnostic methods also make it possible to determine the cancer's stage of development, if it is present.
For most women, treatment of ovarian cancer is based on a surgical intervention intended to remove the cancerous mass, the ovaries or neighbouring organs. This is sufficient in some cases, but other therapeutic approaches are sometimes necessary.
These other therapeutic approaches can vary from one person to another depending on age, health, and other factors such as the type of cancer and its stage of development. Chemotherapy may be considered in many cases. More rarely, radiation therapy or hormone therapy may be used.
If you must receive these types of treatments, the medical team will provide you with the essential information needed for clear understanding of your treatment. Your pharmacist can also provide information and answer your questions.
Once your treatment is finished, a close medical follow-up will be necessary to prevent a recurrence. It will be important to go to your appointments and do your medical tests assiduously.
Although it isn't possible to prevent ovarian cancer completely, it is believed that certain measures can reduce the risk of being affected by it. Here are a few:
- Abstain from smoking.
- Maintain a healthy and balanced diet; avoid sugar and fat.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- If you have a baby, choose breastfeeding.
- If you are considering a contraceptive method, it has been shown that oral contraceptives have a protective effect against ovarian cancer. Speak to your doctor or pharmacist about the benefits and risks associated to it, depending on your personal situation.
- 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.
- Avoid exposure to asbestos.
Don't hesitate to speak to your pharmacist for additional information about ovarian cancer or any other health-related issue.