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Monday, March 13, 2006

Ovarian Cancer

What is it?
There are several different types of ovarian cancer, but by far the most common – accounting for 90 per cent of cases – is epithelial ovarian cancer, or cancer of the surface layers of the ovary.

Around 40 to 50 per cent of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer will still be alive five years later. When the disease is caught early, however, survival rates are much higher, although the particular type and severity of the cancer are also important factors.

The exact cause of ovarian cancer isn’t clear, but some factors are known to increase the risk.

The most important is family history, because the faulty genes that increase the risk of ovarian cancer can be inherited. In particular you may be at increased risk if you have close relatives who’ve had one of the following types of cancer: ovary, breast, colon, prostate or endometrial (lining of the womb).

The risk of developing ovarian cancer may also be related to how many eggs the ovary releases. Each time an egg is released (ovulation) the surface of the ovary breaks open and the cells on the surface divide to repair the damage, increasing the chances of a tumour developing. So, having children and breastfeeding may reduce the risk, as may taking the contraceptive pill (as it prevents ovulation).

Other possible risk factors include fertility treatment, a high-fat diet and the use of talcum powder in the genital area.

Symptoms are usually vague, especially in the early stages. Many women have no symptoms at all and the disease is discovered by chance. But early symptoms may include pain in the lower abdomen or side and a bloated feeling.

As the disease progresses, it may cause lower abdominal pain, pain during sex, a swollen abdomen, constipation and irregular periods. In the advanced stages of disease there may be loss of appetite, nausea, weight loss, tiredness and shortness of breath.

Ovarian cancer is difficult to diagnose and most women have some other explanation for their symptoms. If your GP is concerned that you could have ovarian cancer, he or she will carry out an internal examination and take a blood test. You may then be referred to a specialist who may do further blood tests and an ultrasound scan of the ovaries.

Screening for ovarian cancer is currently offered to those at high risk – because of family history, for example – and to those of normal risk who’ve been invited to join a trial. Your doctor can tell you more.

Most women with ovarian cancer are offered surgery to remove the tumour. Many also have chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy. The treatment recommended will depend on the type of ovarian cancer, how far it has spread, the severity or grade of the cancer and how healthy you are.

This article was last medically reviewed by Dr Trisha Macnair in August 2005. First published in November 1997.

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