In the United States alone, more than 14,000 women will die from ovarian cancer in 2009. Ovarian cancer is the fifth most lethal cancer for women, though it is the eighth most common. This unfortunate discrepancy is due to difficulty in diagnosis and treatment; not only does ovarian cancer have few obvious symptoms, but treatment can be elusive. In the early stages, five year survival rates (the percent of women diagnosed who live at least five years past their diagnosis) is between 89-99%. In the later stages, this rate drops to only 18-55%. Catching the disease early and treating it immediately is key to improve the chances of survival.
What is Ovarian Cancer?
Ovarian cancer is the presence of a malignant tumor in the ovaries, the female reproductive organs responsible for holding and releasing eggs during menstruation. It should be noted that tumors and growths of the ovaries are not always cancerous, some are malignant (lethal) while some are benign (not lethal). However, a physician will likely recommend removal of both types of growth.
How is Ovarian Cancer Treated?
Ovarian cancer is treated with one of three primary methods: surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy. Surgery involves removal of the tumor, or one or both of the ovaries. In the early stages of the disease, surgery is typically the best treatment as the cancer has yet to metastasize, or spread to other areas of the body. Removing one or both of the ovaries can help ensure that the tumor and/or the majority of the cancer is removed, highly increasing the chance of survival.
However, sometimes the tumor is too big, the cancer has already spread to other parts of the body, or for some reason the patient cannot undergo surgery. In these cases, radiation is a primary method of treatment. Radiation involves targeting radio waves or x-rays at the tumor site to kill cancer cells. Unfortunately, this can involve killing healthy cells as well, so radiation is not typically used if the woman wants (and will be able to) have children in the future. Radiation is also sometimes given adjuvantly (after surgery) in order to make sure all cancer cells have been removed.
For ovarian cancer in later stages, chemotherapy is a traditional method of treatment. If the disease has spread to other parts of the body, chemotherapy can be effective as it courses through the entire system, not only targeting the ovaries. In later stages of ovarian cancer, it is not uncommon for the cancer to have spread to the lymph nodes. Systemic chemotherapy helps target these metastases (the cancer that has spread). Drugs are typically given through an IV (intravenously) on a three or four week cycle, and a combination of chemotherapies is typically used, as this has been shown to be more effective. As of yet there are no chemotherapies developed solely for ovarian cancer, though a number of pharmaceutical and biotech companies have drugs in development. Ask your doctor about clinical trials if you are curious.
An ovarian cancer diagnosis can be very frightening, but remember that there are treatments available. The earlier a patient and physician catch the disease, the greater the likelihood that the treatments will be successful.
Source: “Ovarian Cancer.” American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/docroot/CRI/CRI_2_3x.asp?dt=33. Accessed 16 June 2010.