Ovarian cancer is a cancerous growth arising from different parts of the ovary.
Most (>90%) ovarian cancers are classified as "epithelial" and were believed to arise from the surface (epithelium) of the ovary. However, recent evidence suggests that the Fallopian tube could also be the source of some ovarian cancers. Since the ovaries and tubes are closely related to each other, it is hypothesized that these cells can mimic ovarian cancer.Other types arise from the egg cells (germ cell tumor) or supporting cells (sex cord/stromal).
In 2004, in the United States, 25,580 new cases were diagnosed and 16,090 women died of ovarian cancer. The risk increases with age and decreases with pregnancy. Lifetime risk is about 1.6%, but women with affected first-degree relatives have a 5% risk. Women with a mutated BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene carry a risk between 25% and 60% depending on the specific mutation. Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of death from cancer in women and the leading cause of death from gynecological cancer. In early stages ovarian cancer is associated with abdominal distension. 10-year relative survival ranges from 84.1% in stage IA to 10.4% in stage IIIC.
Ovarian cancer causes non-specific symptoms. Early diagnosis would result in better survival, on the assumption that stage I and II cancers progress to stage III and IV cancers (but this has not been proven). Most women with ovarian cancer report one or more symptoms such asabdominal pain or discomfort, an abdominal mass, bloating, back pain, urinary urgency,constipation, tiredness and a range of other non-specific symptoms, as well as more specific symptoms such as pelvic pain, abnormal vaginal bleeding or involuntary weight loss.There can be a build-up of fluid (ascites) in the abdominal cavity.
Diagnosis of ovarian cancer starts with a physical examination (including a pelvic examination), a blood test (for CA-125 and sometimes other markers), and transvaginal ultrasound. The diagnosis must be confirmed with surgery to inspect the abdominal cavity, take biopsies (tissue samples for microscopic analysis) and look for cancer cells in the abdominal fluid. Treatment usually involves chemotherapy and surgery, and sometimes radiotherapy.
In most cases, the cause of ovarian cancer remains unknown. Older women, and in those who have a first or second degree relative with the disease, have an increased risk. Hereditary forms of ovarian cancer can be caused by mutations in specific genes (most notably BRCA1 andBRCA2, but also in genes for hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer). Infertile women and those with a condition called endometriosis, those who have never been pregnant and those who use postmenopausal estrogen replacement therapy are at increased risk. Use ofcombined oral contraceptive pills is a protective factor. The risk is also lower in women who have had their uterine tubes blocked surgically (tubal ligation).
The signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer are most of the times absent, but when they exist they are nonspecific. In most cases, the symptoms persist for several months until the patient is diagnosed.
A prospective case-control study of 1,709 women visiting primary care clinics found that the combination of bloating, increased abdominal size, and urinary symptoms was found in 43% of those with ovarian cancer but in only 8% of those presenting to primary care clinics.
Accuracy of symptoms:
Two case-control studies, both subject to results being inflated by spectrum bias, have been reported. The first found that women with ovarian cancer had symptoms of increased abdominal size, bloating, urge to pass urine and pelvic pain. The smaller, second study found that women with ovarian cancer had pelvic/abdominal pain, increased abdominal size/bloating, and difficulty eating/feeling full. The latter study created a symptom index that was considered positive if any of the six (6) symptoms "occurred >12 times per month but were present for <1 year". For early-stage disease, they reported a 57% sensitivity and 87% to 90% specificity.
In 2007, the Gynecologic Cancer Foundation, Society of Gynecologic Oncologists and American Cancer Society originated the following consensus statement regarding the symptoms of ovarian cancer.
Ovarian cancer is called a “silent killer” because symptoms were not thought to develop until the disease had advanced and the chance of cure or remission poor. However, the following symptoms are much more likely to occur in women with ovarian cancer than women in the general population. These symptoms include:
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
- Pain in the back or legs
- Diarrhea, gas, nausea, constipation, indigestion
- Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
- Urinary symptoms (urgency or frequency)
- Pain during sex
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Trouble breathing
Women with ovarian cancer report that symptoms are persistent and represent a change from normal for their bodies. The frequency and/or number of such symptoms are key factors in the diagnosis of ovarian cancer. Several studies show that even early stage ovarian cancer can produce these symptoms. Women who have these symptoms almost daily for more than a few weeks should see their doctor, preferably a gynecologist. Prompt medical evaluation may lead to detection at the earliest possible stage of the disease. Early stage diagnosis is associated with an improved prognosis.
Several other symptoms have been commonly reported by women with ovarian cancer. These symptoms include fatigue, indigestion, back pain, pain with intercourse, constipation and menstrual irregularities. However, these other symptoms are not as useful in identifying ovarian cancer because they are also found in equal frequency in women in the general population who do not have ovarian cancer.
The exact cause is usually unknown. The risk of developing ovarian cancer appears to be affected by several factors. The more children a woman has, the lower her risk of ovarian cancer. Early age at first pregnancy, older age of final pregnancy and the use of low dose hormonal contraception have also been shown to have a protective effect. Ovarian cancer is reduced in women after tubal ligation.
The relationship between use of oral contraceptives and ovarian cancer was shown in a summary of results of 45 case-control and prospective studies. Cumulatively these studies show a protective effect for ovarian cancers. Women who used oral contraceptives for 10 years had about a 60% reduction in risk of ovarian cancer. (risk ratio .42 with statistical significant confidence intervals given the large study size, not unexpected). This means that if 250 women took oral contraceptives for 10 years, 1 ovarian cancer would be prevented. This is by far the largest epidemiological study to date on this subject (45 studies, over 20,000 women with ovarian cancer and about 80,000 controls).
The link to the use of fertility medication, such as Clomiphene citrate, has been controversial. An analysis in 1991 raised the possibility that use of drugs may increase the risk of ovarian cancer. Several cohort studies and case-control studies have been conducted since then without demonstrating conclusive evidence for such a link. It will remain a complex topic to study as the infertile population differs in parityfrom the "normal" population.
There is good evidence that in some women genetic factors are important. Carriers of certain mutations of the BRCA1 or the BRCA2 gene are notably at risk. The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes account for 5%-13% of ovarian cancers and certain populations (e.g. Ashkenazi Jewishwomen) are at a higher risk of both breast cancer and ovarian cancer, often at an earlier age than the general population.Patients with a personal history of breast cancer or a family history of breast and/or ovarian cancer, especially if diagnosed at a young age, may have an elevated risk.
A strong family history of uterine cancer, colon cancer, or other gastrointestinal cancers may indicate the presence of a syndrome known ashereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC, also known as Lynch II syndrome), which confers a higher risk for developing ovarian cancer. Patients with strong genetic risk for ovarian cancer may consider the use of prophylactic, i.e. preventative, oophorectomy after completion of childbearing. Australia being member of International Cancer Genome Consortium is leading efforts to map ovarian cancer's complete genome.