Ovarian cancer is a blanket term used to refer to one of several types of malignant growths that begin in the cells of the ovaries. Ovarian cancer is not one of the more common cancers among women, but it is a leading cause of their cancer-caused deaths.
Ovarian cancer can originate in the surface epithelial cells of the ovaries, the germ cells, or the stromal cells. Epithelial ovarian tumors develop from the cells on the outer surface of the ovary. Most are benign and are removed from surgery, but some are cancerous carcinomas, one of the most common and deadly of all ovarian cancers. This type of ovarian cancer is more common among women over 50, and is so deadly because it is not usually diagnosed until it has metastasized into other organs of the body, and metastatic disease is always the most difficult to treat successfully. Ovarian germ cell tumors develop from cells that produce ova or eggs, and most, but not all, are benign. Among the most common germ cell malignancies are teratomas. Ovarian germ cell cancer is most common in women in their teens and twenties, and though the fatality rates associated with it used to be very high, today, using combination chemotherapy, the majority of women are cured and their fertility preserved. Ovarian stromal tumors develop from the connective tissue cells that hold the ovaries together and those that produce estrogen and progesterone. Stromal malignancies are rare and low-grade, meaning that they spread slowly and are usually diagnosed at an early stage of the disease.
Because other cancers may spread into the ovaries, people with a personal or family history of breast, uterine, prostate, or colorectal cancer are considered to be at higher risk of ovarian cancer. Age, unexplained infertility, use of high dose estrogen without progesterone, and the usual lifestyle factors (smoking, poor diet - especially diet high in saturated fats, lack of exercise) are all risk factors. It is more common among Caucasians and Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish women than other racial groups.
Symptoms of ovarian cancer include pelvic or abdominal pain and persistent gastrointestinal upset, but these are common discomforts of everyday life, and not something that should send you into a tailspin of fear about cancer. See your doctor if you experience such symptoms. Physicians who suspect that a woman has an increased risk of ovarian cancer may perform routine vaginal digital or vaginal ultrasound tests, and recently, a mutated genetic marker for the condition was discovered, which can be detected by a blood test. Basically, however, there is no reliable, accurate screen for the disease, which is not detected during a Pap smear. Like all cancers, optimal treatment depends on the stage of the disease (localized vs. metastasized) and a woman's age and overall health condition. Surgery to remove a cancerous growth is the primary diagnostic and therapeutic tool, and the surgery may also involve removal of one or both ovaries (oophorectomy). Metastatic disease is usually treated with chemotherapy or radiation.
Good web resources on ovarian cancer include the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition and the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, which you can find respectively at: