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Ovarian cancer develops in a woman's ovary. In some cases, the cancer begins in the ovary. Other times, cancerous cells metastasize, or spread, to the ovary from another site in the body.
What is going on in the body?
The ovaries are inside the woman's pelvic area. From puberty to menopause, the ovaries produce female hormones. These hormones regulate the menstrual cycle, or menstruation. The ovary also contains eggs. The female hormones regulate the release of eggs during the cycle.
When an ovarian cell becomes cancerous, it will begin multiplying rapidly. A growth, or tumor, on the ovary forms as the cells multiply. This growth may or may not interfere with the function of the ovary. Cancer cells can break off from the tumor and spread directly to other areas inside the pelvis. Cancer cells can also metastasize through the bloodstream to other areas of the body.
What are the causes and risks of the disease?
No one knows what causes ovarian cancer. Women who have used oral contraceptives, or birth control pills, may be at lower risk than other women. The use of hormone replacement therapy at menopause has not been proven to increase risk. There is no proven link between diet and ovarian cancer.
Heredity may play a part. Our knowledge of the role of genetics in ovarian cancer is still being expanded. A genetic mutation called BRCA 1 results in increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. BRCA 2, another genetic mutation, may result in increased risk for both female and male breast cancers, as well as ovarian cancer. Testing may be indicated when three or more closely related members of a family have had premenopausal breast cancer or ovarian cancer. Although it is much more common in women over 50 years of age, ovarian cancer can occur in childhood.
Genetic testing and genetic counseling may be helpful to women with a family history of ovarian cancer. The removal of ovaries to prevent the disease is controversial at this time. More needs to be learned about the reliability of testing and effectiveness of follow-up.
Other factors that might increase the risk of ovarian cancer include:
celibacy, or abstaining from sexual intercourse
a diet high in fat
exposure to asbestos, talc, and industrial toxins
having had no children
a history of uterine or breast cancer