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A woman's ovaries perform a vital role in reproduction. There is one ovary on each side of the uterus (womb) in the pelvis. These oval-shaped sacs produce eggs and the hormones estrogen and progesterone. Ovarian cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancerous) growth forms in any part of the ovaries, versus cancer that starts elsewhere in the body and metastasizes (spreads) to the ovaries.
Fortunately, ovarian cancer is rare, and early detection through regular papanicolaou (Pap) tests and pelvic exams may be helpful in catching the disease in its first stages when treatment can be most effective. When ovarian cancer is diagnosed and treated early the survival rate increases to more than 90 percent.
Ovarian Cancer Symptoms
Early cancer often causes no symptoms, and sometimes symptoms that do occur are mistaken for other problems such as irritable bowel syndrome. Women should take notice of any abnormal belly feeling that does not go away including swelling, bloating, pain, feeling full quickly or having trouble eating. Other pelvic-area symptoms include the need to urinate frequently, a change in bowel habits or abnormal menstruation. Telltale signs also include unusual fatigue, back pain, pain during sex or unexplained weight loss.
Risk Factors for Ovarian Cancer
- Women age 65 or older
- Family history of ovarian or breast cancer
- BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 gene mutations
- Women who have never been pregnant
- Ashkenazi Jewish descent
- Unusually early or late start of menstruation
- Lack of regular screenings such as Pap smears and gynecological physical exams
Types of Ovarian Cancer
The cancers are named for where they originate:
- Epithelian – Cancer that forms on the ovary surface. This type of cancer occurs mostly in adults and represents about 90 percent of ovarian cancers.
- Germ Cell – Cancer in the egg-producing cells within the ovary. This type of cancer affects children and teenage girls and is very rare.
- Stomal – Also called sex-cord cancer, this cancer that begins in the ovarian tissues containing hormone-producing cells. It generally occurs in younger women and is also very rare.
How Ovarian Cancer is Diagnosed
The cancer specialists at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson and Jefferson’s Gynecologic Oncologist Program work as a team to confirm your diagnosis. Our thorough process begins with a discussion about your symptoms and a review of your medical history followed by a thorough pelvic exam. If cancer is suspected, doctors may order a series of diagnostic imaging tests to obtain detailed pictures of your ovaries and blood tests to look for high levels of proteins called tumor markers. Ovarian cancer can also be confirmed through tissue biopsies and by analyzing abdominal fluid.
If you think you may be at an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer due to your family’s genetics, the Jefferson's Clinical Cancer Genetics Service will provide genetic risk assessment, genetic counseling and genetic testing.
If you are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, you want treatment from a hospital that specializes in cancer care – specifically gynecologic cancers. For that reason, you can feel confident that the doctors at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson and Jefferson’s Gynecologic Oncologist Program will carefully guide you through available treatment options based on your age, your physical condition plus your cancer’s size and stage of growth.
The vast majority of ovarian cancer cases involve surgery. If the cancer is small or confined to one ovary, doctors may just remove the diseased ovary. If the cancer is more advanced and widespread, the surgeons may remove both ovaries and other parts of the reproductive system including fallopian tubes, the uterus and nearby tissues. Your treatment options may also include chemotherapy and intensity-modulated radiation therapy before or after surgery.
Why Choose Jefferson for Ovarian Cancer?
We are your Philadelphia area resource for nationally-recognized oncology expertise. The Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson is one of only 69 National Cancer Institute (NCI) – designated Cancer Centers in the U.S., a special designation that applies only to regional referral centers with a high level of clinical services and participation in national clinical trials.
Our physicians and scientists have helped pioneer new approaches to ovarian cancer treatment by translating scientific discovers into improved patient care. When you become one of our patients we provide you and your family with a support network that includes specially trained nurses, educators, fellow patients and our Buddy Program of cancer survivors.
Clinical trials are the best way patients can receive new therapies and procedures. To find out if a clinical trial might be right for you, ask your health care provider or contact the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center Clinical Research Management Office at 215-955-1661.
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Call 1-800-JEFF-NOW (1-800-533-3669) to speak with a JEFF NOW® representative who will schedule an appointment for you.