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Ovarian Cancer

Cancer of the ovaries is not a major cause of female cancer deaths in Australia.

It can either be due to a primary growth arising in one of the ovaries itself or, in about 10% of cases, it can be due to a spread from other organs including stomach, the bowel, the womb, the breast, the pancreas, the thyroid and the kidneys.

The ovaries, more so than any other organ in the body, can be the site of a large variety of tumours, both malignant and non-malignant.

Unfortunately, in most cases there are no symptoms in the early stages, and as a result, diagnosis is not made until cancer is well established.

Some tumours of the ovary which can be either malignant or non-malignant produce sex hormones.

If the hormones are of the “male” type, signs can include varying degrees of amenorrhea or loss of periods, even a failure of the periods to commence in the young girl. Breasts and genitals may fail to develop and deepening of the voice and abnormal growth of facial and body hair may occur. Acne of the skin can appear and there may be recession of the hair line at the forehead. Obesity can be an added feature. Signs of masculinisation in a young girl, even through to adulthood, should be thoroughly investigated.

If the tumour produces “female” sex hormones the opposite symptoms can occur with early development of sex characteristics including the breasts, the pubic hair, and body contour.

If the tumour occurs in post-menopausal women, refeminisation might occur with a re-starting up of periods. There may be associated abdominal distention and discomfort.

Sometimes a tumour of the ovary will be discovered by the doctor during a routine gynecological examination. On other occasions it will present as an acute episode of some intense abdominal pain with nausea and vomiting. These symptoms can be due to twisting and strangulation of a cyst of the ovary which may contain a cancer. Rupture of a cyst can also produce the same acute symptoms.

Large ovarian tumours, malignant of non-malignant, can produce a feeling of pressure in the lower abdomen, resulting in frequent passing of urine and constipation.

X-rays of the abdomen, ultrasound and scanning techniques are often used to establish the diagnosis.

Diagnosis of cancer of the ovary may have to be confirmed by an exploratory operation.

Treatment of the cancers include surgical removal of the ovaries. If the cancer has spread, the uterus and tubes might also have to be removed as well as partial removal of bowel and lower abdominal contents.

Radiotherapy and chemotherapy can play a part in the treatment.

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