The ovaries are almond-sized female reproductive organs located in the pelvis. Their primary functions are to produce estrogen and progesterone, as well releasing eggs. From the ovaries, an egg travels through the fallopian tube into the uterus (womb). During and after menopause, the ovaries stop releasing eggs an produce fewer hormones.
When cells displaying uncontrolled growth, invasion, and/or metastasis arise in the ovaries, a cancer may develop. These cells, having undergone an anomalous transformation that causes them to proliferate abnormally, form a structure called a neoplasm. If this neoplasm destroys adjacent tissues, and/or spreads to other areas of the body, a cancer is formed.
Ovarian Cancer Risk Factors
- Family History: Women with a parent or sibling with ovarian cancer are more likely to develop the disease themselves.
- Age: Most cases of ovarian cancer occur after menopause. Women over the age of 70 are especially at risk.
- Pregnancy History: Women that have never been pregnant are at a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer. The reason behind this is not completely understood, but the body’s production of progesterone during pregnancy that offsets rising estrogen levels as you age is thought to play an important role in cancer prevention.
- Inherited Gene Mutations: Women with BRCA1 (breast cancer gene 1) are 35-70% more likely to develop ovarian cancer than women without the mutation. Women with BRCA2 (breast cancer gene 2) are 10-30% more likely to develop the disease. These genes were named “breast cancer genes” because they were first identified in people with a familial relationship to breast cancer.
- Obesity: Obese women are more likely to develop ovarian cancer than women considered to be at a normal weight. Furthermore, there seems to be a link between very aggressive ovarian cancers and obesity.
- Male Hormones: Some disorders in women are treated with male hormones, such as androgen in the form of the medication danazol. Studies have suggested a link between male hormones and the development of ovarian cancer. More research is needed, however, to clearly define this relationship.
Ovarian Cancer Outlook
For many years, ovarian cancer was considered to be a “silent killer”. This term identified the disease’s tendency to spread to other areas of the body unnoticed by most women until it had advanced beyond curability. New research, however, suggests that symptoms of ovarian cancer are often present even in the earliest of stages. Ovarian cancer was so deadly in the past because women lacked awareness about the disease’s symptoms, not because the disease lacked symptoms. Nowadays, through education and regular screenings, early detection is much more common, and higher rates or curability have become a reality.
Despite today’s cancer research and the modern emphasis on cancer education and screenings, only 20% of ovarian cancers are detected before the disease has metastasized to other structures throughout the body. A favorable prognosis is dependent on early detection. Curability and long-term survival rates express a strong predominance towards cancers diagnosed early in their development.
Ovarian Cancer Prevention
- Birth Control: Studies suggest that women who have used oral contraceptives for five years or more are 50% less likely to develop ovarian cancer than women that have never used them.
- Tubal Ligation or Hysterectomy: Your risk of developing ovarian cancer is reduced if you have your “tubes tied” or undergo a hysterectomy.
- Pregnancy and Breast-Feeding: Women who have had at least one pregnancy are at a lower risk of developing an ovarian cancer. Furthermore, research suggests a link between breast-feeding and ovarian cancer prevention.