How fast does ovarian cancer spread?

Written by loraine degraff
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How fast does ovarian cancer spread?
(Susan Arnold/Dr. Raowf Guirguis. National Cancer Institute)

According to the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, ovarian cancer is high on the list of cancer deaths among American women. Its high death rate is due in part to the fact that it is very difficult to diagnose in its early stages. In most cases, it can be detected only by microscopic examination. By the time the disease has been positively detected, severe damage has already occurred in major parts of the body. Ovarian cancer cells spread very quickly.

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Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer occurs in the ovaries when healthy ovarian cells begin to multiply abnormally. This abnormality produces tumours in one or both ovaries. Unfortunately, there are no significant symptoms of the disease at this point. Nausea, fatigue or indigestion that usually accompany the disease are often confused with other health conditions. By the time more severe symptoms are noticeable, such as pelvic and back pain, vaginal bleeding and pain during sexual intercourse, the cancer has already spread to other body organs and has done significant damage.

History

Ovarian cancer often develops in women with a family history of the disease. A woman with a significant family history of breast cancer also has a greater chance of developing the disease. Obesity, age and poor diet are other factors that can contribute to the onset of this loathsome condition. Menopausal women are mainly at risk, but the disease can occur in nonmenopausal women as well. Fertility drugs increase the risk of ovarian cancer.

Types of Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer consists of three types, determined by the cells in which the cancer develops:

Epithelial cancer is the most common and usually occurs in women 40 and older. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, about 85 to 90 per cent of all ovarian cancers stem from epithelial cells. Epithelial cells cover the surface of the ovaries.

Germ cell tumours occur in about 5 to 20 per cent of ovarian cancer patients. Germ cells are cells in the ovaries from which the eggs develop. Cancer developing from these cells occurs primarily in children and adolescents.

A third type of ovarian cancer is called sex cord--stromal tumours. This type of cancer accounts for most of the hormonally active ovarian tumours. These tumours occur inside the ovaries in connective tissues. Sex cord-stromal tumours often have more specific symptoms such as vaginal bleeding and infrequent menstrual periods.

Stages of Ovarian Cancer

There are several stages of ovarian cancer:

At Stage I, the cancer cells are contained in one (or possibly both) ovaries. The cells also may be located on the surface of the ovaries or in the fluid obtained from the abdomen.

Stage II consists of cells that have spread from the affected ovary (or ovaries) to other tissues in the pelvic area. The uterus and Fallopian tubes can be affected at this stage.

At Stage III, the abnormal cells have spread to tissues outside the pelvic area. The cancer cells may be located in the lymph nodes or outside the liver.

At advanced Stage IV, cancerous cells have found their way to tissues outside the abdomen. The liver, lungs and other pertinent organs are now affected.

Growth Rate of Ovarian Cancer

Although ovarian cancer can spread throughout the entire body, it usually stays in the abdomen and affects organs such as the stomach, intestines and liver. Women are encouraged to stay in tune with their bodies and have regular gynecologist visits as ovarian tumours can develop and spread very quickly. If the cancer goes unchecked, great damage is done to body organs and death is imminent.

Treatment for Ovarian Cancer

Doctors often prescribe chemotherapy as a preventive measure for ovarian cancer. Surgery is commonly recommended for women at high risk. Preventive surgery, however, does not eliminate all risks of developing the disease. There has been much discussion of late of the possibility of deterring the disease with contraceptive pills. This method, however, is not for everyone. Women should be knowledgeable of genetic disorders in their family history, seek genetic counselling and continue to have regular checkups to improve chances of averting the disease. Treatment after diagnosis of ovarian cancer includes surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments in specialised cases.

Survival Rate of Ovarian Cancer Patients

According to a recent medical review by the American Cancer Society, approximately 3 out of 4 women with ovarian cancer survive at least one year after diagnosis; 46 per cent live at least five years. If the cancer is detected and treated before it has spread outside the ovary, there is a five-year survival rate of 93 per cent. Women under the age of 65 have a greater life expectancy than their older counterparts. Patients with low-grade cancer and those treated with chemotherapy also have a greater survival rate. Woman who are diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer generally are given about a 20 per cent chance of survival past the next five years.

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