Overview of ovarian cancer
Ovarian, fallopian tube, and peritoneal cancers are forms of gynecologic cancer. Gynecologic cancers start in a woman’s reproductive organs. Ovarian cancer is the most common of the three gynecologic cancers. Less commonly, gynecologic cancer starts in the fallopian tubes or peritoneum (lining of the abdominal wall).
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Ovarian, fallopian tube, and peritoneal cancers can be challenging to detect. In the early stages, they often do not show any signs at all.
Over time, signs and symptoms of gynecological cancer can include:
- Menstrual changes
- Pain during sex
- Urinary symptoms, including having to go frequently or urgently
- Trouble eating, feeling full quickly, loss of appetite, or upset stomach
- Abdominal, pelvic, or lower back pain
Symptoms usually don’t develop until the advanced stages, when the cancer spreads throughout the reproductive organs or other areas of the abdomen.
The exact cause of ovarian, fallopian tube, and peritoneal cancers is not yet known. All cancers are caused cell mutations, leading to uncontrolled cell growth and tumors. Some factors, like radiation, genes, and smoking can make cell mutations more likely.
Ovarian cancer is rare and makes up only about 3 percent of cancers among women.
Many types of tumors can affect the ovaries, fallopian tubes, and peritoneal area. The most common are epithelial tumors, or epithelial ovarian carcinomas, which account for 85 to 90 percent of ovarian cancers. It is also possible to develop germ cell tumors (which affect the cells that produce eggs) and stromal tumors (which affect the cells that make hormones) in the ovaries. These cancers are often identified early and are treated similarly to epithelial cancer, though they affect different cells.
Two other types of cancer, primary peritoneal carcinoma and fallopian tube cancer, resemble epithelial ovarian cancer. These cancers are similar to epithelial ovarian cancer and often have the same treatment approach and technique. Primary peritoneal carcinoma begins in the lining of the pelvis and abdomen, while fallopian tube cancer starts in the fallopian tubes. Both are also rare.
While the exact cause of gynecological cancers isn’t known, there are a few factors that can make cancer more likely, including:
- Genetic mutations in the BRCA1, BRCA2, and PTEN genes
- Caucasian race
- Older age (most of these cancers develop in women after menopause)
- Female gender, although peritoneal cancer can occur in men
- Family or personal history of colon, ovarian, or breast cancer
- Having your first period at a young age (under the age of 12)
- Starting menopause later than average (after the age of 55)
- Use of estrogen replacement therapy for five to 10 years
- Use of fertility medication
- Being diagnosed with other reproductive conditions, including endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome
- Never being pregnant, or carrying yourfirst full-term pregnancy after the age of 35
Lifestyle factors, such as eating a high-fat diet and being overweight, may also increase cancer risk, including ovarian, fallopian tube, and peritoneal cancers.
Prevention strategies focus on reducing your risk. Routine health screenings for women are an essential opportunity to discuss any symptoms you may be experiencing. Abnormalities can be detected during a Pap smear, for example.
Research suggests that the following factors can have a protective effect, reducing the risk of fallopian tube, ovarian, and peritoneal cancers:
- Breastfeeding, and this effect increases as length of time breastfeeding increases.
- “Combination” hormonal birth control pill use.
- Carrying at least one pregnancy to term.
- Surgeries like hysterectomy, though this is typically only recommended for women with high-risk genetic mutations such as BRCA1 or BRCA2. Having the ovaries and fallopian tubes removed after having children will prevent ovarian/fallopian tube cancers as well as possibly reducing the risk of breast cancer.
The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.