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Ovarian & Fallopian Tube Cancers

The ovaries are a pair of organs in the female reproductive system. They are located in the pelvis, one on each side of the uterus. The fallopian tubes convey eggs from the ovaries to the uterus. During each monthly menstrual cycle, one ovary releases an egg, which travels through a fallopian tube to the uterus.

The ovaries secrete estrogen and progesterone, the female hormones that control the development of the breasts and other female body characteristics as well as regulate the menstrual cycle and pregnancy.

Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cancer in women and the second most common gynecologic cancer (second to breast cancer). The American Cancer Society estimates that about 25,580 new cases of ovarian cancer will be diagnosed in the United States during 2004. Ovarian cancer accounts for 4% of all cancers in women.

Ovarian cancer has the highest mortality rate of all the female cancers, primarily because it produces few early warning signs and is, therefore, often detected late. About 70 percent of women have advanced disease at the time of diagnosis.

The ovaries contain three kinds of tissues:

  • Tissues made up of germ cells that produce eggs (ova) that are formed on the inside of the ovary.
  • Tissues made up of stromal cells, which produce most of female hormones.
  • Tissues made up of epithelial cells that cover the ovary.

In general, ovarian tumors are named according to the kind of cells the tumor started from and whether the tumor is benign or cancerous. Most ovarian cancers arise in the covering of the ovary (epithelium). Stromal tumors start from connective tissue cells that hold the ovary together and produce the female hormones. Germ cell tumors start from the cells that produce the ova (eggs).

Ovarian malignancies tend to grow rapidly and rarely cause pain or other symptoms that might lead to early detection. The cancer usually spreads directly by shedding malignant cells into the abdominal cavity. Adjacent tissues and organs such as the liver, stomach, intestines, omentum (the fatty tissue attached to the intestines), and diaphragm are likely areas of invasion. Ovarian cancer can also spread through the blood or lymph glands to other parts of the body, such as the lungs and brain.

When the diaphragm is affected, normal drainage of fluid from the abdominal cavity may be impaired, resulting in ascites, the accumulation of fluid that distends the abdomen.

Fallopian Tube Cancer

Fallopian tube cancer starts within the fallopian tubes, a pair of ducts that transport eggs from ovary to uterus. Primary carcinoma of the fallopian tube is very rare, comprising only 1-2% of all gynecologic cancers. It is more common for cancer to spread to a fallopian tube from elsewhere in the body (usually the ovary or endometrium) than for a new cancer to develop in the fallopian tube.