Health Connection

What do I need to know about ovarian cancer?

Dr. Rachel Spears, OB/GYN
What do I need to know about ovarian cancer?

What do you know about ovarian cancer?

Did you know: About 22,240 new cases of ovarian cancer will be diagnosed in 2018.

Yet, according to the American Cancer Society, only about 20% of ovarian cancers are found at an early stage. When ovarian cancer is found early, about 94% of patients live longer than 5 years after diagnosis.

So what can women do?

While a Pap test can be effective in the early detection of cervical cancer, it is not a test for ovarian cancer. On some occasions, ovarian cancer is found through a Pap test, however, it’s usually because the cancer is in an advanced stage.

Can I get screened for ovarian cancer?

According to the American Cancer Society, there has been a lot of research to develop a screening test for ovarian cancer, but there hasn’t been much success.

A pelvic exam is one way for a healthcare provider to feel the ovaries and uterus and check for size, shape and consistency. Ovarian tumors can be difficult to feel, but a pelvic exam can help uncover other cancers or female conditions. Women can discuss with their primary care or women’s health doctor about having a pelvic exam should they display any symptoms of ovarian cancer.

What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?

In the early stages of ovarian cancer, the symptoms are often subtle and could be signs of other problems. Symptoms can include:

  • Back pain
  • Stomach discomfort, bloating or swelling
  • Pelvic pain
  • Loss of appetite, indigestion, nausea, gas or fullness even after eating small meals
  • Diarrhea, constipation or frequent urination
  • Vaginal bleeding or irregular periods

“However, these symptoms may also be signs of other more common problems. It is important that you see your doctor if you have these symptoms so that you can be diagnosed accurately,” says Dr. Pui “Joan” Cheng, Gynecologic Oncologist with LCMC Health.

stock photo of a physician writing out a diagnosis script pad

What exactly is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer starts in cells within the ovaries. Only women have ovaries, so only women get this kind of cancer. Cancer is when cells in the body change and grow out of control. Cancer is made up of abnormal cells that grow even though the body doesn’t need them to grow.

“Newer theories suggest that some cases of ovarian cancer may start in cells from the fallopian tubes or from the peritoneal lining,” says Dr. Cheng.

Ovarian cancer rates are highest in women aged 55-64 years. The median age at which women are diagnosed is 63, meaning that half of the women are younger than 63 and a half are older when diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Benign and malignant tumors can start growing in the ovaries. Benign means that they are not cancerous, so these tumors do not spread throughout the body. They can usually be treated by removing a part of or the entire ovary. Ovarian cancer is a cancerous, or malignant, tumor. If a cancerous tumor is not treated, it can grow and spread to other parts of the body. This progression is called metastasis.

Are there different types of ovarian cancer?

The ovary is made up of many layers of cells. Cancer can affect one, many or all of these layers. The main types of ovarian cancer are:

Epithelial ovarian cancer
This is by far the most common type of ovarian cancer or tumor. It starts in cells on the outer layer of the ovary or fallopian tube. It makes up about 85– 90 percent of ovarian cancer cases.

Germ cell ovarian cancer
This rare type of ovarian cancer starts in the cells that form eggs in the ovary. These tumors are most common in women in their teens and early twenties. It’s highly-curable and can often be treated without affecting fertility.

Stromal cell cancer
This very rare ovarian cancer starts in the stromal cells that make certain female hormones and forms in connective tissue that holds the ovaries in place.

Female physician talking to female patient

How is ovarian cancer diagnosed?

To begin, your healthcare provider will ask about your medical and family history to help uncover why you may be having symptoms associated with ovarian cancer.

Your doctor may also do a physical exam and pelvic exam. If the doctor feels something abnormal during the pelvic exam, they may then suggest additional tests, such as an ultrasound or blood test.

What tests might I have after being diagnosed?

If initial tests and exams strongly point to ovarian cancer, you’ll likely receive a chest X-ray and CT-scan to help learn more about cancer and to see if it has spread to nearby areas in the body. This will also help your doctor determine the best course of treatment for you.

How is ovarian cancer treated?

“Treatments for ovarian cancer depend on the type of cancer and its stage,” explains Dr. Cheng. “Surgery is used to treat all stages of ovarian cancer. In the early stages of ovarian cancer, before it has spread, surgery may be the only treatment you need.”

For later stages, when cancer has spread, your doctor may prescribe chemotherapy (chemo) and surgery.

What are my options for treatment?

New Orleans patients have many available programs for cancer treatment, including the Cancer Center at West Jefferson Medical Center. Our comprehensive program includes Palliative Care, a Survivorship Clinic, Clinical Trials and the only Radiation Therapy Department on the West Bank of New Orleans.

West Jefferson Medical Center has devoted staff, a state-of-the-art facility, and cutting-edge technology that can help you fight cancer. For additional information about the Cancer Center, give us a call at 504.349.6360.

Profile picture of Dr. Rachel SpearsDr. Rachel Spears attended Xavier University and received her Doctorate of Medicine from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas. She completed her residency at Louisiana State University in New Orleans. After completion of residency, Dr. Spears practiced in Pennsylvania and joined the Medical Staff at West Jefferson Medical Center in 2015.

Dr. Spears is board certified by the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecologist. She enjoys providing a continuum of care as women go through various stages of life. Her practice includes providing preventative care, performing minimally invasive procedures, treatment of female diseases and providing quality prenatal care.