Ovarian cancer has been called the ‘Cancer that Whispers’ because women do not experience symptoms until the cancer is in such late stages. Once it is diagnosed, it is difficult to treat. So how does ovarian cancer get there in the first place? We spoke to Dr. Beth Karlan, gynecological oncologist at UCLA medical center, to answer this question and discuss the anatomy of ovarian cancer.
According to Karlan, ovarian cancer is a term used to refer to a number of different tumors that reside in the ovary, the female reproductive organ. The ovary produces the female sex hormone, estrogen, as well as eggs for reproduction. There are two ovaries in every woman, on either side of the uterus, and the fallopian tube picks up the egg from the ovary and brings it to the uterus for fertilization. So how do ovaries become cancerous?
Contrary to what may initially come to mind, ovarian cancers actually begin in the fallopian tubes. A few cancerous cells first reside on the fallopian tubes and then “as the fallopian tubes brush over the ovary, the cells that become cancers stick to the ovaries,” says Dr. Beth Karlan, gynecological oncologist at UCLA medical center. Then, according to Karlan, these cancerous cells eventually grow to form the tumor that results in ovarian cancer.
Different ovarian cancers occur in women at different points of life, with most occurring close to menopause. According to Dr. Karlan, “The most common type of ovarian cancer, however, typically occurs around the time of menopause, in the fifth decade.” In fact, about half of ovarian cancers occur in women over age 60, and they are often diagnosed at later stages. In terms of total risk, one woman out of every 71 (approximately 1.4%) will develop ovarian cancer at some point in her lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society. Ovarian cancers, like so many other cancers, are best and most easily treated if caught early.