Cancer of the Ovary

A cancerous tumour that can develop in one or both ovaries

  • Most common between the ages of 50 and 70; rare under the age of 40
  • Sometimes runs in families
  • Not having had children is a risk factor

Cancer of the ovary is the fifth most common type of cancer in women and causes about 4,300 deaths each year in the UK, more than any other cancer of the female reproductive tract. This high death rate is usually explained by the fact that symptoms do not develop until late in the progress of the disease, which delays the diagnosis and treatment.

The cause of cancer of the ovary is not known, but the tumour sometimes develops from an ovarian cyst. There seem to be hormonal and genetic risk factors for developing the disease. Women who have never had children or have had a late menopause are more likely to develop cancer of the ovary. Women with a close relative who developed ovarian cancer before the age of 50 are also at greater risk.

Cancer of the ovary

Most of the abdominal cavity seen in this colour-enhanced CT scan is filled by a large cancerous ovarian tumour.

What are the symptoms?

Ovarian cancer rarely produces symptoms in the early stages, although there may be symptoms similar to those of an ovarian cyst, such as irregular periods. In most cases, symptoms occur only if the cancer has spread to other organs and may include:

  • Pain in the lower abdomen.

  • Swelling in the abdomen caused by excess fluid.

  • Frequent need to pass urine.

  • Rarely, abnormal vaginal bleeding.

There may also be general symptoms of cancer, such as loss of weight, nausea, and vomiting. Left untreated, the cancer may spread to other organs in the body, such as the liver or lungs.

How is it diagnosed?

If a close relative has had cancer of the ovary, you should consult your doctor about testing for this type of cancer. Testing may detect cancerous changes before symptoms develop and allows treatment to be given in the early stages of the disease. You may be offered ultrasound scanning through the vagina or abdomen to look for a tumour or blood tests to look for a specific protein produced by this cancer.

If you have symptoms and your doctor suspects cancer of the ovary, he or she will examine your abdomen for the presence of swellings or lumps. You will also have an ultrasound scan of your ovaries and possibly also a laparoscopy. Other tests that may be carried out include MRI and/or CT scanning of the lungs or liver to see if the disease has spread. Unfortunately, there is no effective screen for the general population.

What is the treatment?

If cancer of the ovary is diagnosed in a woman who wishes to have children, if possible, only the affected ovary and fallopian tube are removed, although the surgery that will be recommended will depend on the precise type of cancer and the stage of the disease. If the cancer has spread to other parts of the reproductive tract or the woman does not wish to have children, a total hysterectomy may be performed, in which the uterus and both the fallopian tubes and ovaries are removed. Surgery is followed by chemotherapy to kill any remaining cancer cells. If the cancer has spread to other organs in the body, radiotherapy may also be given. After treatment, blood tests and physical examinations are carried out regularly to check for recurrence.

What is the prognosis?

The outlook for women with cancer of the ovary depends on how advanced the condition is at the time of diagnosis. A complete recovery is possible only if the condition is diagnosed and treated while in the early stages. However, the disease has spread in up to 3 in 4 women by the time of diagnosis. In these women, chemotherapy can prevent further spread of the cancer, sometimes for years, but it can rarely eliminate the cancer completely.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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