Ovarian cancer is a growth of abnormal malignant cells that begins in the ovaries (women’s reproductive glands that produce ova). Cancer that spreads to the ovaries but originates at another site is not considered ovarian cancer. Ovarian tumors can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Although abnormal, cells of benign tumors do not metastasize (spread to other parts of the body). Malignant cancer cells in the ovaries can metastasize in two ways: directly to other organs in the pelvis and abdomen (the more common way), through the bloodstream or lymph nodes to other parts of the body.
Primary peritoneal carcinoma is a rare cancer that is much like epithelial ovarian cancer. It starts outside of the ovaries, in the pelvis and abdomen and women who have had their ovaries removed can still get this type of cancer. The symptoms are much like those of ovarian cancer and treatment is also very similar.
The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2012, about 22,280 new cases of ovarian cancer will be diagnosed and 15,500 women will die of it in the United States.
Ovarian cancer survival rates are much lower than other cancers that affect women.
- The relative five-year survival rate is 46 percent. Survival rates vary depending on the stage of diagnosis.
- Women diagnosed at an early stage have a much higher five-year survival rate than those diagnosed at a later stage.
- Less than 15% percent of ovarian cancer patients are diagnosed early.
- Women diagnosed with breast cancer in 1975 experienced a five-year survival rate of 75.3 percent; today, the American Cancer Society estimates the rate to be 89 percent.
- Women diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1975 experienced a five-year survival rate of 34.8 percent; today, the American Cancer Society estimates the rate to be 46 percent.
For years, women have known that ovarian cancer was not the silent killer it was said to be. Over the past decade, science has found the following symptoms are much more likely to occur in women with ovarian cancer than women in the general population:
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
- Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
- Urinary symptoms (urgency or frequency)
Several other symptoms have been commonly reported and they include fatigue, indigestion, back pain, pain with intercourse, constipation or diarrhea, menstrual irregularities, weight gain or loss, and shortness of breath.
See your doctor, preferably a gynecologist, if these symptoms are unusual for you and persist for more than a few weeks. Experts suggest getting the following tests:
- A transvaginal ultrasound, CA-125 blood test and manual pelvic and rectal exam.
- A pap smear will not detect ovarian cancer.
- Any woman at risk, suspected or diagnosed with ovarian cancer should consult a gynecologic oncologist. Studies show survival rates are significantly better for women with ovarian cancer that are treated by a gynecologic oncologist.
Since there is no diagnostic tool for ovarian cancer, symptom awareness remains of key importance. Being cognizant of symptoms can help women get diagnosed sooner. For this reason, The Ovarian Cancer National Alliance offers two free resources women can use to track symptoms of ovarian cancer: an Ovarian Cancer Symptom Diary App and a printable Symptom Diary .