Few words strike as much fear into the heart as “cancer.” Of course, there are many good reasons for cancer’s horrible reputation, not the least of which is its mortality rate. In 2010 alone, cancer was responsible for the deaths of nearly 575,000 Americans, trailing only heart disease as the leading killer in the United States. Unlike other serious diseases, which tend to focus on a specific organ or area, cancer can strike in numerous locations throughout the body, including the lungs, throat, stomach and pancreas. But perhaps cancer’s most depressing trait is its durability; if not caught early enough, cancer will almost certainly remain in a patient’s body for the rest of his or her life.
Some of the most publicized forms of cancer afflict the lungs, breasts, prostate and thyroid. For some women, the ovaries can also fall victim to the long reach of cancer. While ovarian cancer is not especially widespread, it is certainly common enough to warrant attention; consider that Charlotte Brosnan, daughter of the actor Pierce Brosan, succumbed to this disease at the age of 41 in July 2013. Each year, roughly 20,000 women are diagnosed with this form of cancer, which also claims 15,000 lives annually. In total, about 1 in 100 women will contract ovarian cancer during their lifetime.
A Genetic Disease?
In many cases, it’s not too difficult for doctors to pinpoint the root causes of a patient’s cancer. Lung and throat cancer, for example, often develop in response to a decades-long smoking habit. In stark contrast, doctors have yet to conclusively determine what triggers ovarian cancer.
One theory suggests that that answer may rest with a patient’s DNA. Specifically, women who possess a mutated form of the BRCA1 gene have a 35 to 70 percent risk of contracting cancer of the ovaries. Likewise, a mutation in the BRCA2 gene leaves a patient with a 10 to 30 percent chance of developing this type of cancer by age 70. This is not the only evidence that genetics play a major role in the appearance of ovarian cancer. Consider how a woman’s family history of ovarian cancer (or lack thereof) impacts her own risk of getting this disease:
|No relatives with ovarian cancer
|1 in 100 risk
|One relative with ovarian cancer
|5 in 100 risk
|Two or more relatives with ovarian cancer
|7 in 100 risk
Aside from genetic factors, a woman’s chances of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer are closely tied to her age. It is a rare occurrence for a woman under the age of 40 to get ovarian cancer. In fact, about half of all ovarian cancer diagnoses are made in women over the age of 63. Additionally, women who have never been pregnant also appear to be more at risk.
A Stealthy Foe
Cancer can be rendered dormant or even vanquished entirely if doctors are able to find it quickly enough. Unfortunately, ovarian cancer often outsmarts both patients and doctors alike, as its symptoms appear to signify little more than persistent digestive problems. Once cancer cells have taken hold in the patient’s ovaries, the following symptoms are likely to appear shortly afterward.
– Unexplained pressure, bloating and swelling in the abdominal area.
– Feelings of pain and/or discomfort in the pelvic bones
– Recurring problems with gas, nausea and indigestion
– Feeling an urge to urinate frequently
– Poor appetite, or a tendency to feel “full” soon beginning a meal
– Prolonged periods of fatigue
– Pain in the lower section of the back
– A larger waistline
By the time an accurate diagnosis is finally made, the cancer cells have often invaded the tissues near the pelvis and abdominal area. Because of this, the survival rate for ovarian cancer is relatively low. Nearly half of all women unfortunate enough to contract this disease die within five years.
Treatment and Early Detection
Once doctors have identified the presence of cancerous cells within the ovaries, the patient usually undergoes a surgical procedure to remove the afflicted tissues. This usually means that the ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus and the surrounding lymph nodes will have to be extracted from the patient’s body. As if this procedure weren’t distressing enough, surgeons are often forced to remove large swaths of the omentum, a layer of tissue that collects fat deposits along the intestines and abdominal organs. If the cancer was spotted in its initial stages, it may only be necessary to remove just one ovary and its connecting fallopian tube.
With the surgery complete, the patient is then subjected to chemotherapy, a procedure commonly used to treat cancers throughout the body. For ovarian cancer patients, chemotherapy serves as basically a mop-up operation, attempting to kill off the remaining cancer cells that survived the surgical procedure. If the cancer cells make a return, doctors typically respond with additional rounds of chemotherapy. Most people who undergo chemotherapy receive drugs intravenously (injected directly into a vein), though some patients have chemotherapy medications injected straight into their abdominal cavity.
As made abundantly clear in the preceding paragraphs, detecting ovarian cancer at an early stage dramatically improves a patient’s odds of survival. Unfortunately, this is much easier said than done. Unlike breast cancer, which can be spotted in its infancy with mammograms, there are no early detection tests for ovarian cancer. The symptoms described above offer clues that something is amiss, yet they can be easily mistaken for unrelated ailments. One red flag to look for is how long these symptoms persist; if they flare up daily for weeks on end, schedule an appointment with you doctor immediately.
Discouraging as this may sound, recent research from Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center offers a glimpse of hope. Essentially, Johns Hopkins researchers developed an exploratory test for identifying ovarian cancer cells. These cells had been shed from clusters of cancer cells in the patients’ ovaries, eventually accumulating in the cervix area. While it’s too early to say if this test will become a reliable indicator of ovarian cancer, it does raise the possibility that such a test will one day be widely available.