What is ovarian cancer?
Ovarian cancer is a malignant growth of the cells of the ovary. Ovaries are only found in women and their job is to produce the female sex hormones oestrogen and progesterone and to release an egg during the fertile phase of each menstrual cycle. They are found in the pelvis and the eggs they produce travel to the uterus via the fallopian tubes. 90% of ovarian cancers are of epithelial cell type these are divided into a large number of subtypes including serous, endometrioid, mucinous and clear cell tumours. The other 10% of ovarian cancer is made up of both germ cell tumours and sex cord-stromal tumours. There are multiple types of these tumours also. The important distinction in treatment is between the three main original cell types, these are:
- Epithelial – 90% of ovarian cancers and the main focus of this guidance
- Germ cell – grow from egg producing cells within the ovary, they may be benign or malignant and are often referred to as ‘teratomas’ or ‘dysgerminomas’
- Stromal – these are tumours of the connective tissue of the ovary and may produce excessive amounts of female sex hormones (e.g. leading to irregular periods) or excessive male hormones, which may lead to excess hair growth or male pattern baldness.
Ovarian cancer affects almost 7000 women per year in the UK. Survival rates vary widely depending on the age of the woman and stage of disease at diagnosis (how far the cancer has spread). The five year relative survival for women aged 15-39 is almost 70% and for women over 80 it is 12% - even when adjusted for life expectancy.
Amended April 2008