Q:  What is ovarian cancer?

A:  There are almost 40 different types of ovarian cancer. However, nine out of 10 ovarian cancer patients have a common epithelial tumor, which begins in the surface tissue of the ovary (epithelium).

Q:  What causes ovarian cancer?

A:  The specific cause of ovarian cancer is unknown. But there are some common risk factors, including your personal and family history, using talcum powder on sanitary napkins or on the vaginal area, infertility and fertility drugs to name a few.

Q:  What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?

A:  Ovarian cancer is often referred to as the "silent killer" because symptoms are easily mistaken as other conditions; by the time they're associated with ovarian cancer, the disease has already spread through a woman's abdomen and beyond. But that's not always the case. Regardless, symptoms include: a feeling of being bloated; vague abdominal and pelvic discomfort; and gastrointestinal symptoms such as gas, back pain and fatigue.

Q:  What kinds of tests will my health care professional want me to take?

A:  It depends on your health, age and history. Remember, sometimes diagnosing a disease is a matter of ruling other things out first, so you may have to go through a number of different tests so your health care professional can make a firm diagnosis. One of the first might be a Pap smear. After that, you may have a CA-125 blood test, abdominal or transvaginal ultrasound, a CAT scan, a lower GI series (barium enema), and an intravenous pyelogram. All of these tests are described in the "Diagnosis" section.

Q:  What are the treatment options for ovarian cancer?

A:  Treatments will vary depending on the stage of disease, the woman's age, and the overall condition of her health. Three primary types of treatments for ovarian cancer include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

Q:  How can I find out if I have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes and what if I do?

A:  First, realize that everyone has these genes. They are designed to help prevent the over-production of cells. Only five percent of women have a mutation in one or both of these genes. If you have a defect in the BRCA1 gene, it means that you may have a 15 percent to 60 percent chance of getting ovarian cancer.

If you have a history of ovarian cancer in your family, you can seek the help of a qualified genetic counselor to do an extensive history and to obtain advice about whether or not to proceed with the test. Finally, if either of these genes is defective, it doesn't mean you'll get cancer. And you can take preventive steps to make sure you don't. Seek advice from your health care professional on how to proceed.

Q:  My father had colon cancer and I heard that, not only am I a candidate for the same disease, but that my chances for ovarian cancer are increased as well. Is that true?

A:  Yes. Hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer is caused by a defect in certain genes. This defect reduces your body's ability to repair damage to its DNA, and results in very high risks for colon, endometrial (the lining of the uterus) and ovarian cancers. Again, if you've got cancer in the family, you may want to consider genetic counseling and testing.

Q:  Why am I supposed to avoid talcum powder?

A:  Some studies have shown that when women put talcum powder directly on the genital area, or even on sanitary napkins, it may have a carcinogenic (cancer-causing) effect. You might want to substitute a cornstarch-based product to be sure.

Copyright 2003 National Women's Health Resource Center Inc. (NWHRC)