Ovarian cancer refers to the cancerous growth that starts in the ovaries. It is the third most common cancer among Indian women. However, it is one of the cancers that are detected in the later stages when they are relatively challenging to treat.
The risk of developing ovarian cancers increases with age. It is more prevalent among women who are above 50 and who have reached the menopausal stage. Having a positive family history is also considered a strong risk factor for ovarian cancers.
Ovarian cancers are categorised into three types based on the types of cells they originate from:
- 1. Epithelial tumours, which account for about 90% of ovarian cancers, arise from the thin layer of tissue that lines the outside of the ovaries.
- 2. Stromal tumours account for about 7% of the ovarian cancers, and it begins in the ovarian tissues that carry the hormone-secreting cells. Unlike other ovarian tumours, stromal tumours are diagnosed at relatively earlier stages.
- 3. Germ cell tumours are the rare type of ovarian cancers that are more prevalent among younger women. These tumours arise from the egg-producing cells.
Ovarian cancer often goes undetected until it has spread within the pelvis and abdomen. At this late stage, both treatment and management of the disease become challenging. An early-stage ovarian cancer, on the other hand, is more likely to be treated with the best clinical outcomes as the disease is largely confined to that organ only. Ovaries are located in the lower abdomen region and their location makes the examination difficult too. This, along with vague symptoms, makes early detection of ovarian cancer a daunting task.
Although vague, unlike symptoms of other less severe conditions, ovarian cancer symptoms persist and can worsen over time. Here are some of the main symptoms of ovarian cancer that women must keep an eye on:
- Pain or pressure in the pelvis
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Pain in the back or abdomen
- Feeling full with less food
- Frequent urination
- Unexplained weight gain or weight loss
- Changes in bowel habits
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
Women must get in touch with their physician if any of these symptoms last for more than two weeks.
Although the exact cause of this disease is yet to be completely known, the following are the factors that increase the risk of developing ovarian cancer among women:
- Reproductive History: Women who have no history of pregnancy or have their full-term pregnancy after 35 are at a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer.
- Family History: A woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer is higher if she has a close relative with a history of ovarian or breast cancer.
- Age: Ovarian cancer risk is reported to increase with age.
- Having a Personal History of Certain Cancers: Those with a history of breast, uterine or colorectal cancers have a higher risk of getting diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
- Endometriosis: Some rare types of ovarian cancer, like clear cell ovarian cancer, are found to be more common among women with endometriosis.
- Genetic Mutations: Genetic mutations of genes associated with ovarian cancers, namely BRCA1 and BRCA2
- Hormone Replacement Therapy: Women using estrogen alone or with progesterone after menopause have an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer compared to women who are not on them.
- Fertility Medicines: In rare cases, the usage of fertility medicines is found to increase the risk of ‘borderline’ or ‘low malignant potential’ ovarian cancers.
- Obesity: Obese women are found to be at a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer.
At HCG, our specialists use multiple testing methods for the detection and diagnosis of ovarian cancers. From simpler blood tests to advanced imaging tests such as PET/CT scans are employed to arrive at an accurate diagnosis. Personalised treatment plans are devised based on the diagnostic information available.
a. Physical Examination: During the physical examination, the doctor enquires on the patient’s health condition, medical history and other aspects to determine the possible risk factors. Patients may also be asked about the symptoms that they have been experiencing. The doctor may also likely conduct a pelvic examination to look for signs of enlarged ovary or fluid in the abdomen (ascites).
b. Blood test (CA125): A blood test may be performed to look for a biomarker called CA125 in the blood. High CA125 levels in the blood may be an indicator of ovarian cancer development. However, this molecule is not exclusive to ovarian cancer, and the elevated levels of this biomarker can be caused due to other illnesses too.
If symptoms such as frequent bloating, feeling of fullness, reduced appetite, or pelvic or abdominal pain are frequently experienced, a CA125 blood test should be carried out as per the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).
c. Imaging Tests: Imaging tests help in finding if ovarian cancer has spread to nearby organs. They may also provide other information, such as the size of the tumour, its exact location, stage and grade. Apart from this, the results from imaging tests may also aid in treatment planning and therapy monitoring.
- Ultrasound: Ultrasound is one of the most commonly used imaging tests for ovarian cancer detection. It employs high-energy sound waves to detect abnormalities such as solid masses or fluid-filled cysts. A transvaginal ultrasound can reveal the size of the ovaries and any abnormalities in the structure of the ovaries and the nearby structures, namely vagina, uterus, bladder, or fallopian tubes.
- PET/CT scan or MRI scan: PET/CT scan or MRI scan may be recommended to look for signs of ovarian cancer that may have spread to abdomen and pelvis.
- Chest X-ray: Chest X-ray is recommended to check if ovarian cancer has spread to the lungs or caused a build-up of fluid around the lungs.
d. Abdominal fluid aspiration: It’s possible that ovarian cancer has spread if there’s a build-up of fluid in the abdomen and it appears enlarged. A tiny needle is inserted into the abdomen to collect a sample of fluid, which will be later examined for cancer cells.
e. Laparoscopy: This technique involves a doctor examiningthe ovaries and other pelvic organs and tissues using a thin, lit tube. The tube is insertedthrough a minor incision (cut) in the lower abdomen, and ittransmits images of the pelvis or abdomen to a video monitor. The results from laparoscopy may help in disease staging and treatment planning.
Treatment planning for ovarian cancer is made based on numerous factors, namely the cancer type and stage, the potential side effects, the woman’s age and whether she’s planning to have children after the treatment. Surgery is often the first treatment recommended for ovarian cancer and may involve the removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes, uterus, lymph nodes in the area and surrounding tissues and organs. Chemotherapy is usually recommended after surgery.
Surgery can be done to confirm the diagnosis, determine the stage of cancer, and operate the tumour. There are multiple surgical approaches that are considered by specialists to manage ovarian cancers successfully.
- Biopsy: Lymph node biopsy or the removal of all or part of a lymph node is performed to analyse the tumour.
- Unilateral Salpingo-oophorectomy: This procedure involves the removal of one ovary and one fallopian tube.
- Bilateral Salpingo-oophorectomy: This is the procedure where both ovaries and fallopian tubes are removed.
- Omentectomy: This surgery involves the removal of the tissue in the peritoneum (called the omentum), which includes lymph nodes.
Hysterectomy: This is the procedure where the womb is completely removed. There are different subtypes of hysterectomy and the right procedure is employed based on the stage of the disease.
- Partial hysterectomy removes the uterus
- Total hysterectomy is performed to remove the uterus and cervix
- Total hysterectomy with salpingo-oophorectomy removes the uterus, cervix and one ovary and fallopian tube (unilateral salpingo-oophorectomy) or both ovaries and fallopian tubes (bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy)
- Radical hysterectomy removes all of the above, along with the nearby tissues.
Chemotherapy has been the accepted standard of care for ovarian cancers. Chemotherapy may also be administered following surgery, as adjuvant therapy, to treat any residual disease and bring down the risk of a relapse, particularly in advanced stages of ovarian cancer.
c. Targeted therapy
Targeted therapy uses drugs that can target specific protein particles present in cancer cells, particular genes and the tumour environment. Targeted therapy drugs are generally reserved to treat relapsed ovarian cancers or those that resist other treatments. Before administration, cancer cells will be tested to determine which targeted therapy is most likely to be effective.
d. Radiation therapy
Since important organs are in the radiation field, a large dose cannot be safely delivered in the case of ovarian cancers. Also, radiation therapy may not be useful for advanced-stage ovarian cancers. Radiation therapy is, therefore, frequently avoided because the important organs may be unable to endure the complications.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Are ovarian cancers treatable?
If ovarian cancer is detected early enough, it can be treated. In a few cases, even advanced-stage ovarian cancers can be treated with positive clinical outcomes.
There are multiple treatment options available for ovarian cancers today that not only support successful health outcomes but also a better quality of life among patients.
2. What can ovarian cancer be mistaken for?
More often than not, the symptoms of ovarian cancer can be confused with those of many less severe health conditions. Following are some of the other health conditions that have similar symptoms to that of ovarian cancer:
- Premenstrual Syndrome
- Ovarian Cysts
- Uterine Fibroids
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Pelvic Infection
However, this does not imply that one can ignore any symptom assuming that it could be of a less serious health condition that will gradually go away. Any symptom that persists for more than two weeks should be brought to the attention of the physician.
3. What is the difference between an ovarian cyst and ovarian cancer?
Ovarian cysts are pockets of regular cells, and these are usually filled with fluid. Ovarian tumours, on the other hand, are abnormal masses made of uncontrollably dividing tumour cells.
Although ovarian cysts present themselves with cancer-like symptoms, namely pelvic pain, difficulty in emptying the bladder, abdominal bloating, feeling of pressure in the abdominal area, etc., ovarian cysts are non-cancerous.
The majority of ovarian cysts show up and disappear with each menstrual cycle, and there is nothing alarming about it. Although most ovarian cysts are benign, following menopause, the presence of ovarian cysts only increases the risk of ovarian cancer.
4. What are the possible side effects of ovarian cancer treatment?
The side effects experienced by each patient may depend on the treatment plan recommended. Possible side effects may include hair loss, bowel problems, joint and muscle pain, nausea and vomiting, changed bowel habits, increased risk of infections, diarrhoea, frequent urination, burning sensation while urinating (cystitis), and a little burn on the skin near the treatment area (for radiation therapy).
Among women who have not gone through menopause, removal of ovaries may lead to surgically-induced menopause as they can no longer make enough estrogen. In addition to normal menopause symptoms like hot flushes and vaginal dryness, low estrogen levels may also induce bone loss and cardiovascular disease.
Fatigue and neuropathy, a tingling, numbing sensation in the hands and feet are other possible side effects associated with ovarian cancer treatment.
5. How can I manage treatment-related side effects?
A few side effects usually wear off over time and may not need any medical intervention. However, there are a few side effects that may affect the treatment response and quality of life among patients and may need medical intervention.
If ovaries are removed, hormone replacement therapy may help patients in restoring their estrogen levels. Dietary adjustments and other nutrition assistance, pain management, and psycho-oncology counselling and other interventions may help in the management of side effects among ovarian cancer patients.
6. Will ovarian cancer treatment affect my ability to have a baby?
If your treatment plan involves the removal of both ovaries and fallopian tubes, along with the uterus (womb), you will not be able to conceive naturally.
However, you still have other means through which you can conceive. If you wish to conceive after the treatment, talk to your gynae-oncologist about fertility preservation alternatives like ovarian cortex cryopreservation, which entails freezing the ovarian tissue before treatment. Other options available include IVF, surrogacy and adoption.