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Medical Advances

Ovarian Cancer: Taking on the ‘Silent Killer’

Research Advances Detection and Treatment

Dubbed the “silent killer” because it’s vague symptoms make early detection difficult, ovarian cancer has been a target for research and expanding treatment options. Director of Gynecologic Robotic Surgery at Northwestern Medicine Prentice Women’s Hospital and Chief of Gynecologic Oncology at Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University, Edward J. Tanner III, MD, discusses ovarian cancer and how research is helping in the battle against the disease.

Detecting Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer develops in the cells of the ovary, the female reproductive organs that produce eggs and the hormones estrogen and progesterone. There are more than 30 types of ovarian cancer, but they typically fall under three classifications depending on the type of tissue affected:

  • Epithelial cell: The cells that cover the surface of the ovary. While most ovarian epithelial tumors are benign, malignant tumors of this kind are the most common and dangerous form of ovarian cancer.
  • Stromal cell. This type forms in the structural tissue of the ovary and produces hormones.
  • Germ cell. This is a rare form of ovarian cancer that forms in the eggs in the ovary.

Symptoms of ovarian cancer can include the following:

  • Feeling full early (even after just a few bites of food)
  • Persistent pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Frequent bloating
  • Urinating more often or more urgently

Because ovarian cancer symptoms tend to be vague (like bloating) and associated with other issues like gastrointestinal problems, it can be difficult to detect early in its most curable stages. If symptoms persist for more than two weeks, discuss them with your physician.

Scientists have discovered another reason ovarian cancer may evade early detection. “Research has shown that epithelial or high-grade serous ovarian carcinomas (HGSOC), the most common subtype, commonly start in the fallopian tube, rather than the ovary,” says Dr. Tanner. “This makes sense because by the time we locate a cyst, it has already spread.”

Dr. Tanner explains there is a lot of research being done on early detection, and he cautions that the Pap smear currently detects cervical cancer – not ovarian cancer.

Life After Diagnosis

Diagnostic testing is used to confirm ovarian cancer. This can include an ultrasound, CT scan or highly specialized X-rays.

Patients who have been recently diagnosed with ovarian cancer will typically undergo a combination of both surgery and chemotherapy. However, for patients with metastatic cancer, meaning it has spread to other parts of the body, treatment may vary. Hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC), a regional cancer therapy, may be used. With HIPEC, tumors are removed surgically, and then chemotherapy medication is inserted directly into the abdominal cavity to kill the remaining cancer cells.

“One area that is growing quickly is the use of immunotherapy to treat cancer,” says Dr. Tanner. Immunotherapy treatments help the immune system to fight the cancer itself.

Paving the Way for Better Treatment

The increased amount of research on ovarian cancer has led to more complex treatment options, and that’s a good thing, explains Dr. Tanner. Physicians are now better able to tailor individualized treatment to each patient rather than using a similar approach for everyone. Genetic testing can provide additional insight into what therapies may or may not work for the specific type of cancer.

Learn more about recent advances in cancer care, including genetic testing for BRCA mutations and how they impact your risk and treatment for ovarian cancer.

Gynecologic Cancer Care

Edward J. Tanner III, MD
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  • Primary Specialty Gynecologic Oncology
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