Ovarian Cancer and Menopause

Ovarian cancer and menopause does seem to cause quite a bit of concern in a lot of women. However, menopause itself is not associated with an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.

On the other hand, the rates of many cancers, including ovarian cancer, do increase with age.

How well you manage your health as you get older determines your overall risk for developing diseases such as cancer. Also, some of the medications prescribed to manage menopausal symptoms may play a part in putting you at risk for developing cancer.

To fully understand the relationship between ovarian cancer and menopause you must first be aware of just what ovarian cancer is.

Ovarian cancer is a malignant tumour that can develop in one or both of your ovaries. As you know, the ovaries are the two small organs in your body located in the lower abdomen (pelvis) on either side of the womb (uterus), and they produce and release ova, human eggs. The ovaries also produce estrogen and progesterone.

Not all ovarian tumors are cancerous. Many tumors are benign ovarian masses and can be: abscesses or infections, fibroids, cysts, polycystic ovaries, or endometriosis related masses.

About 20% of tumors or masses found in women who are still menstruating, and have not gone through menopause, are cancerous. For women who have been through menopause about 45% of tumors or masses that are found are cancerous.

Ovarian Cancer is classified in the following ways:

  • Epithelial tumors: These tumors arise from the layer of cells that surround the outside of the ovary. About 75% of ovarian cancers are epithelial and this is usually found in women who have been through menopause.
  • Stromal tumors: these tumors develop from connective tissue cells that help form the structure of the ovary and produce hormones. Usually only one ovary is involved. This accounts for about 10% of ovarian cancers and occurs in women 40 to 60 years old.
  • Germ Cell tumors: these tumors arise from the germs cells, the cells that produce the egg. This accounts for about 15% of ovarian cancers.

These tumors most often develop in young women.

  • Metastatic tumors: these are tumors that occur in the ovaries as a result of cancer spreading from other parts of the body; such as, colon, breast, stomach and pancreas. This accounts for only 5% of ovarian cancers.

When ovarian cancer is discovered in its earliest stages it can be cured 90% of the time. Unfortunately, early ovarian cancer detection is hard to do. But if ovarian cancer is diagnosed before it has spread to other organs, then the five year survival rate is greater than 75%.

What Are The Causes Of Ovarian Cancer?

The cause of ovarian cancer is not really known and ovarian cancer and menopause are not directly linked, however, there is an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer if:

  • A woman has a family history of ovarian cancer
  • A woman has never been pregnant
  • A woman is over the age of 50, as the risk of ovarian cancer increases with age.
  • A woman has Ashkenazi Jewish heritage
  • A woman has European (white) heritage: White women are more likely to develop ovarian cancer than African American women
  • There is repeated exposure of the genitals to talc
  • There is irradiation of the pelvic area

As mentioned above ovarian cancer and menopause are not directly linked because menopause itself does not cause ovarian cancer, but some studies have linked the long-term use of estrogen therapy and or hormone replacement therapy (over 10 years) to an increased risk of ovarian cancer.

So, again, if you are considering medical hormone replacement therapy, discuss the risks and benefits with your medical practitioner and understand ovarian cancer and menopause.

The following factors decrease your risk of ovarian cancer:

  • Pregnancy – as the number of pregnancies increases, the risk of ovarian cancer decreases
  • Breastfeeding lowers the risk of ovarian cancer and risk decreases with the increasing duration of breastfeeding
  • Having your “tubes tied” (tubal ligation) to prevent pregnancy or having a hysterectomy lowers your risk of ovarian cancer

What Are The Symptoms Of Ovarian Cancer?

Ovarian cancer and menopause are not directly linked but are there and similar symptoms between ovarian cancer and menopause?

Ovarian cancer in its early stages has few symptoms. The first sign of ovarian cancer is an enlarged ovary, but this can go unnoticed until it becomes advanced. Usually symptoms of ovarian cancer do not occur until the tumor has grown large enough to apply pressure to other organs or the cancer has spread to remote organs in the body.

And some symptoms of ovarian cancer are so non-specific that they may not be considered as symptoms of ovarian cancer.

Symptoms of more advanced ovarian cancer include:

  • Swollen abdomen-caused by build up of fluids produced by the tumor
  • Lower abdominal and leg pain
  • Sudden weight loss or weight gain
  • Change in bowel or bladder function, e.g. urinary frequency
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Gas and/or diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Swelling in the legs
  • Pain with intercourse

A good rule of thumb is to see your doctor if you have abdominal pain, distension or bloating that cannot be explained for the usual reasons.

And remember if you have any concerns about ovarian cancer and menopause see your doctor.

Some Ovarian Cancer And Menopause Tips To Protect Yourself

Here are a few tips on how you can lesson the risk of ovarian cancer:

  • Get a yearly pelvic exam
  • See your doctor if you have any irregular, vaginal bleeding or abdominal pain
  • Discuss with your doctor the risk factor of ovarian cancer for you if any of your close family members like your mother or sisters have ovarian cancer
  • Eat a low fat diet

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