What is ovarian cancer?
Each cell in the body survives, grows, and dies under regulated conditions. The term cancer means an uncontrolled growth of cells. When cancer begins in the ovaries, it is called ovarian cancer. The ovaries are a pair of organs that are a part of the female reproductive system. Each ovary is an oval organ, roughly 2-inch long. Ovaries are located in the pelvis on either side of the uterus. Their main functions include producing the egg or ovum and female sex hormones (estrogen and progesterone).
Recent studies have suggested that ovarian cancer may begin in part of the fallopian tubes near the ovaries (distal end). Although not common, ovarian cancer causes a significant number of deaths among women. Depending upon the type of cells forming cancer, ovarian cancer may be of various types. The most common type of ovarian cancer is high-grade serous carcinoma that accounts for around 70 percent of the ovarian cancer cases.
What are the main causes of ovarian cancer?
The definitive cause of ovarian cancer is unknown. Some women may get ovarian cancer even in the absence of any apparent causes or risk factors. Certain conditions may increase your risk of ovarian cancer. These include:
- Being middle-aged or older
- Having a family history of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, or colorectal cancer (this means any of the first-degree relatives such as mother, sister, grandmother, or daughter have had any of these cancers)
- Inheriting certain abnormal genes such as BRCA and BRCA2 or the gene associated with Lynch syndrome or Peutz-Jeghers syndrome
- A positive personal history of cancer of the breast, uterus, colon, or rectum
- Being obese or overweight
- Certain ethnic backgrounds (Eastern European or Ashkenazi Jewish)
- Having endometriosis (a condition in which the tissue lining the uterus grows elsewhere in the body)
- Using fertility treatment
- Women who have never been pregnant or have never succeeded to continue pregnancy till term
- Smoking (it typically increases the risk of mucinous ovarian cancer)
- Applying talcum powder to the genital area or using talc on sanitary napkins, condoms, or diaphragms
- Taking estrogen hormone without progesterone for 10 years or more
Having the above risk factors does not necessarily mean that you will get ovarian cancer. Some women may not get ovarian cancer despite the risk factors, whereas some may get the condition despite the absence of any risk factors. If you have any of the risk factors, particularly a family history of ovarian, breast, or colorectal cancer, you must consult your doctor for screening tests.
What are the warning signs of ovarian cancer?
Ovarian cancer is rarely diagnosed in its early stages because of the lack of any typical signs and symptoms. When present, the symptoms may include:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge (vaginal bleeding in postmenopausal women should not be ignored)
- Belly pain or discomfort
- Reduced appetite
- Swollen or distended abdomen
- Heaviness or pain in the pelvic area
- A change in bowel habits, typically constipation
- A frequent urge to urinate
- Unexplained weight loss
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