Cancer of the ovaries occurs when normal ovarian cells transform into malignant cells, which grow at a much more aggressive rate. Ovarian cancer is not nearly as common as breast cancer in women, but can often be more damaging because ovarian cancer is frequently undetected until it has already spread beyond the ovaries into other pelvic and abdominal structures. In the United States each year, over 20,000 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer and almost 15,000 women will die from ovarian cancer. A woman’s chances of getting ovarian cancer are about 1 in 75, and it is the fifth most common cause of cancer death among women.
Risk factors for developing ovarian cancer include:
• Older age (average age at diagnosis is 63)
• Caucasian ethnicity
• Being overweight or obese
• Never being pregnant
• Never carrying a pregnancy to full term
• Having a first full-term pregnancy after age 35
• History of tubal ligation
• Postmenopausal estrogen replacement therapy alone (without concurrent progesterone replacement therapy)
• Family history of female cancers such as ovarian, breast, or endometrial cancer
Many women do not have symptoms of ovarian cancer until it has progressed to a later stage. However, some symptoms of ovarian cancer can include:
• Pelvic or abdominal pain
• Swelling in the abdomen
• Pain during sex
• Frequent urination
• Upset stomach
• Abnormal vaginal bleeding
• Back pain
• Unintentional weight loss
When ovarian cancer is suspected, some form of imaging is typically ordered to look for an ovarian mass. Tests typically used are an ultrasound, CT scan, or an MRI. The only way to definitively diagnose it is to obtain a tissue sample, known as a biopsy. Because the ovaries are so small, and easily accessible by surgery, the ovaries are typically removed and a biopsy is taken at that time.
If the biopsy is positive for ovarian cancer, the cancer must be staged. Stage I means that the cancer is confined to the ovaries and fallopian tubes. Stage II means that the cancer is has spread to other organs within the pelvis (uterus, fallopian tubes, bladder, sigmoid colon, or rectum). Stage III means that the cancer has either spread to lymph nodes in the back of the abdomen, or beyond the pelvis to the lining of the abdomen. Stage IV is the most advanced stage, and denotes distant spread of the cancer to organs such as the liver, spleen, and lungs.
Conventional treatment for ovarian cancer typically involves surgery to remove the ovaries. The uterus might also be removed at that time. Chemotherapy and radiation are also frequently employed, as is hormonal therapy. In integrative oncology, we also add other therapies which we feel are valuable for each patient and her specific ovarian cancer case. These treatments will typically include a combination of intravenous vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other therapies. Nutrition is also emphasized, as are high quality nutritional supplements. The treatments chosen for each patient are different, based on a wide variety of factors including specifics of the cancer as well as other items in the patient’s history.
The ultimate goal of integrative cancer treatment is to combine the best aspects of modern medicine with the best natural therapies, and do so in a way which best meets each patient’s needs.