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Ovarian Cancer

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What is ovarian cancer?

Thumbnail diagram of the cervix

Ovarian cancer is the uncontrolled growth of cells within a woman's ovary. The ovaries are reproductive glands that are located on either side of the uterus in the lower abdomen. They have two main functions: to produce estrogen and progesterone, hormones that are responsible for the development of secondary sexual characteristics and regulation of the reproductive cycle; and to develop and release an egg into the fallopian tube once a month during childbearing years.

Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cause of cancer death in women. According to the American Cancer Society, the life-time risk of developing ovarian cancer is about 1/75. They estimate that about 22,280 new cases are diagnosed each year in the United States and about 14,240 women die of it. Invasive ovarian cancer is a more common cause of death than the more prevalent and easily detected cancers of the uterus and cervix. Currently, about 20% of ovarian cancers are found in the early stages before they have spread outside the ovary.

Ovarian tumors can be benign or malignant. It is not usually possible to tell whether a tumor is cancerous until the ovary has been biopsied or removed or the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. Three types of tumors are seen:

  • Epithelial tumors (majority of ovarian tumors) – begin in the epithelial cells covering the outside of the ovaries
  • Germ cell tumors (less than 2% of all ovarian tumors) – occur in the egg-producing cells and are more often seen in younger women
  • Stromal tumors (about 1% of all ovarian tumors) – derive from connective tissues of the ovary that produce estrogen and progesterone

While benign tumors do not metastasize, cancerous ovarian tumors will spread if left undiagnosed and untreated – first throughout the ovary, then to the uterus, bladder, rectum, and the lining of the abdomen. Eventually, cancerous cells will reach the lymph nodes and spread throughout the body.

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