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A Guide to Ovarian Cancer: Risk Factors, Symptoms and Treatment

Posted November 21, 2022 by Clarissa Polen-De, M.D.

Younger woman smiling and leaning on older woman smiling

The ovaries may be small, but they are mightily important in a female’s reproductive cycle. With each about the size and shape of an almond, the ovaries produce eggs, as well as the female hormones estrogen and progesterone.

You don’t often hear about a loved one developing ovarian cancer because it’s not very common. However, it does deserve your attention, especially if you’re at high risk. Ovarian cancer ranks fifth in cancer deaths among females, according to the American Cancer Society. What’s more, there’s no easy way to screen for it.

Ovarian cancer is a growth of abnormal cells in the ovary. However, some ovarian cancers can start in the fallopian tubes, which connect the ovaries to the uterus.

There are many types of ovarian cancer. The most common type is called high grade serous carcinoma, which occurs in about 70 percent of ovarian cancer cases, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Summa Health sheds light on ovarian cancer, risk factors, symptoms, and treatment. It may be uncommon, but ovarian cancer can and does occur, and catching it as early as possible is key to improving patient outcomes.

Ovarian cancer risk factors

The risk of ovarian cancer increases with age. That’s why it is most often diagnosed in older females. In addition, certain conditions can increase the risk, including endometriosis or PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome), a hormonal imbalance disorder that causes enlarged ovaries with small cysts on the outer edges.

Additional factors that could increase the risk for ovarian cancer, include:

  • A family history of ovarian cancer
  • An inherited genetic mutation. Some of the same genes that increase a female’s risk for breast cancer also increase the risk for ovarian cancer.
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Smoking
  • Postmenopausal hormone replacement therapy
  • Beginning menstruation at an early age or starting menopause at a later stage, or both
  • Never being pregnant

Ovarian cancer symptoms

Typically, ovarian cancer doesn’t produce noticeable symptoms at first, so it can be difficult to detect early. Most have no symptoms or very mild symptoms until the disease is in an advanced stage.

Ovarian cancer symptoms can include:

  • Unusual vaginal bleeding (particularly past menopause) or discharge
  • Abdominal bloating or swelling, pain or discomfort
  • Feeling full too quickly after eating
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained back pain
  • Changes in bathroom habits, such as constipation or frequent urination

Ovarian cancer diagnosis and treatment

To diagnose ovarian cancer, a gynecologic oncologist will likely perform several tests. This can include a pelvic exam, ultrasound, CT scans of the abdomen and pelvis, blood tests and/or a biopsy.

If ovarian cancer is confirmed, a stage will be assigned. The lowest stage (stage 1) indicates that the cancer is confined to the ovaries, whereas the highest stage (stage 4) indicates it has spread to distant areas of the body. Most ovarian cancers are diagnosed at Stage III or IV because of the vague symptoms.

Treatment of ovarian cancer typically involves a combination of surgery and chemotherapy. However, the specific treatment plan will depend on the patient’s situation and their cancer.

Additional therapies may be used, including:

  • Targeted therapy, which is a type of chemotherapy that uses drugs designed to precisely identify and attack cancer cells without damaging healthy cells.
  • Hormone therapy, which blocks hormones in order to stop or slow the growth of cancers that depend on those hormones to thrive.
  • Immunotherapy, which uses drugs to help boost the immune system so it works harder to find and attack cancer cells to stop or slow cancer growth.

Unfortunately, there is no simple and reliable way to screen for ovarian cancer. A Pap test does not check for ovarian cancer.

That’s why it’s so important that females recognize the warning signs and discuss any family history of breast or ovarian cancer with their providers. Pay attention to your body and know what is normal for you. If you notice anything unusual and it could be a sign of ovarian cancer, talk to your healthcare provider right away. The sooner ovarian cancer is found and treated, the better your chance for recovery.

For more information or to schedule an appointment, contact Summa Health’s Gynecologic Oncology Specialists at 330.379.3514.


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