Ovarian cancer develops in the cells of the ovaries. Ovarian cancer is a disease that increases with advancing age. It is one of the most aggressive tumours and the second-most common malignant disease of the female reproductive organs. Often it is only detected very late as it does not cause any symptoms for a long time. Noticeable symptoms often only appear in a late stage of the disease. They can include pain in the lower abdomen, an increase in girth and digestion troubles.
Several different cell types are present in the ovaries. Therefore, there are many different histological types of ovarian cancer. In Germany, approximately 8,000 women a year develop ovarian cancer.
The risk of developing the disease seems to increase with advancing age. Environmental and dietary factors influence the risk of developing ovarian cancer.
Infertility and childlessness also seem to play a part. Pregnancy, and also taking the anti-baby pill lower the risk, however.
Certain genetic mutations are known to increase the individual risk of carriers, both in ovarian and in breast cancer.
Ovarian cancer is rarely diagnosed in women below the age of 50. With advancing age, however the chance of developing ovarian cancer increases. The younger a woman was for her first pregnancy and the more children she has had the lower is her risk of developing the disease. Taking the anti-baby pill over several years has a positive effect and lowers the risk of ovarian cancer.
Only once the tumour in the ovaries has grown large enough to exert pressure on other organs, the patient’s state of health will decline.
Before that stage, there are certain warning signs when a woman should see her doctor straightaway. In particular if the symptoms have only been present recently, are more severe than usual menstrual-cycle related problems and do not go away after a short period:
- Bleeding between menstrual periods or after the menopause
- Abdominal pain, bloating or digestive problems without apparent cause
- Unexplained weight loss with simultaneous increase in abdominal girth
These symptoms can also have harmless causes.
Once the tumour is of a certain size, a gynaecologist can palpate the malignant growth. Different examinations help to make a certain diagnosis:
- physical, gynaecological exams (palpation) including the lymph nodes in the neck
- rectal exam
- lung x-ray
- laboratory testing of blood and determination of tumour markers
- cystoscopy and proctoscopy
- imaging of the kidneys and ureter
- rarely: Computer tomography (CT)
There are two treatment options for ovarian cancer:
During the operation, the surgeons perform a laparotomy (surgical procedure through an opening in the abdomen). A certain diagnosis can only be made during surgery by removing a piece of tissue that is then examined histologically by a pathologist. The pathologist informs the surgeons whether it is ovarian cancer or not. If this is the case, surgery is continued.
Following surgery and final tissue analysis (histology), the physician and patient will discuss the subsequent chemotherapy that is usually needed together.
Any remaining cancer cells in the body will be destroyed by the chemotherapy. Medicinal products that inhibit cell growth (cytostatics) work very well against rapidly growing cells, which applies in particular to cancer cells.