Cancer is a disease that develops when specific cells in the body start dividing uncontrollably. It then invades surrounding tissue. When these cells affect the ovaries, it is called ovarian cancer.
There are quite a few types of ovarian cancer. While they all affect the ovaries, they all have different origins, look different under a microscope and differ in treatment and prognosis.
As with all cancer, tumors can either be benign (non-cancerous and do not spread to other parts of the body) or malignant (cancerous and capable of metastasizing).
Also, one mustn’t confuse ovarian tumours with ovarian cysts. Firstly, cysts are fluid-filled sacs, and tumours are solid masses. Secondly, cysts are relatively common, mostly not harmful, don’t cause symptoms, and do not indicate future ovarian cancer.
The picture in Namibia is unclear as there are no specific data for ovarian cancer. By far, most cases of women in Namibia are cases of breast cancer. Followed by cervix uteri and kaposi sarcoma. The most deadly cancers are breast, lung, and colorectum.
Symptoms of ovarian cancer are not absent but are particularly subtle and mistaken for other, less severe, and more common problems. In some cases, the early stage may produce symptoms, but in the majority of cases, that does not happen.
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
- Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
- Urinary symptoms (urgency or frequency)
Occasionally, there can be other symptoms of ovarian cancer, such as:
- Changes in bowel habits
- Abnormal bleeding – Any post-menopausal bleeding should always be checked by your primary health care provider or doctor.
- Extreme fatigue
- Unexplained weight loss
- Back pain
- Pain with intercourse
- Menstrual irregularities
Ovarian cancer patients say that symptoms represent a change in their bodies and are persistent. The frequency and number of these symptoms are critical factors in diagnosing ovarian cancer. If you have these symptoms for more than two weeks, go to your doctor. It’s better to go to a gynecologist as they have the proper diagnostic equipment. While knowing the symptoms is essential, as it may hasten a diagnosis, research has shown that it is not very effective in itself. To treat it more successfully and identify it earlier, more research is needed.
Unfortunately, there are no routine screening tests available to detect ovarian cancer. It is important to note that while a Pap smear effectively detects cervical cancer, it is not a test for ovarian cancer.
The path to diagnosis includes:
- Pelvic exam
- Transvaginal or pelvic ultrasound
- CA-125 blood test
In some cases, a CT scan or PET scan may be used as part of the diagnostic process. The only definitive way to determine if a patient has ovarian cancer is through a biopsy.
The treatment for ovarian cancer includes:
- Surgery: Removing cancer tissue in an operation.
- Chemotherapy: Using medicine to shrink or kill the cancer. The drugs can be pills or intravenous, or both.
How you can support the cause
Disturbingly, studies have found that the majority of women had not even heard of ovarian cancer or knew anything about it before diagnosis. If the delay in diagnoses is to be addressed, we need to raise awareness of ovarian cancer and its symptoms. Both with clinicians and with women. This is especially crucial as there is no routine test for it.
World Ovarian Cancer Day is celebrated each year on May 8th. Join the World Ovarian Cancer Coalition and help make sure that everyone knows about ovarian cancer and its symptoms. Go here for excellent resources!