Answering the question “What is ovarian cancer?” is critical to beginning to understand the disease and what to expect if you or a loved when is diagnosed with it. Ovarian cancer refers to a cancerous growth arising from cells that make up the ovary.
The ovaries are part of the female reproductive system. They are located on either side of the uterus, and very close physically to the fallopian tubes. They are small almond-shaped organs found in the lower part of the abdomen known as the pelvic cavity. Each ovary has an outer covering of cells called the epithelium.
Germ cells, which eventually mature into eggs, are found on the inside. The eggs travel through the fallopian tubes into the uterus where if fertilized, implants and develops into a fetus. The ovaries are also the main source of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone. The picture below shows the anatomy of the female reproductive system.
The ovaries are made up of three types of tissue:
- Epithelial cells, which cover the ovary.
- Germ cells, which are found inside the ovary. They develop into eggs that are released into the fallopian tubes every month.
- Stromal cells, which produce most of the estrogen and progesterone.
The different types of ovarian tumor are generally named according to the type of cells the tumor started from, therefore there are epithelial, germ cell and stromal ovarian tumors.
When we ask “what is ovarian cancer?” We expect to learn about the characteristics of ovarian cancer. Here are a few:
- It is not a common cancer, the lifetime risk is about 1 in 71 for invasive ovarian cancer.
- The mortality is quiet high. About 3 in 4 women with ovarian cancer survive at least 1 year after diagnosis, but just under half (46%) of women are alive at least 5 years after diagnosis according to The American Cancer Society.
- Most ovarian cancers develop in older women. Around half of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer are 60 or older.
When asking “what is ovarian cancer?” many women would also like to know if ovarian cystsare a form of ovarian cancer. The fact is that most are not cancer. Ovarian cysts are formed when there is a collection of fluid inside the ovary. Most occur as a normal part of ovulation, and are called functional cysts. They usually go away within a few months without treatment. However a small number of cysts will be malignant, and should be removed via surgery straight away.
I hope this article has shed some light on the question many women ask: “what is ovarian cancer?”