Cancer Types | Ovarian Cancer - National Foundation for Cancer Research

Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian Cancer

In the U.S., ovarian cancer ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women, accounting for more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system.

Key Facts

  • An estimated 21,410 new cases of ovarian cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2021, with 13,770 deaths expected to result from the diagnosis.
  • While all women are at risk of ovarian cancer, the overall lifetime risk of developing the disease is 1 in 78.
  • The estimated five-year survival rate for patients whose ovarian cancer is detected early is about 93%. However, only 16% of women are diagnosed at the early stages.
  • Ovarian cancer can be difficult to diagnose because initial symptoms are similar to gastrointestinal illness and indigestion. Women who experience symptoms daily for more than a few weeks should seek prompt medical evaluation.
Source: American Cancer Society’s Cancer Facts & Figures 2021 and the Society’s website

Signs and Symptoms

A symptom is a change in the body that a person can see and/or feel. A sign is a change that the doctor sees during an examination or on a laboratory test result. If you have any of the symptoms below, it does not mean you have cancer but you should see your doctor or health care professional so that the cause can be found and treated, if needed.

Common symptoms

  • Bloating
  • Pelvic or abdominal (belly) pain
  • Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
  • Urinary symptoms such as urgency (always feeling like you have to go) or frequency (having to go often)

Other symptoms

  • Fatigue (extreme tiredness)
  • Upset stomach
  • Back pain
  • Pain during sex
  • Constipation
  • Changes in a woman’s period, such as heavier bleeding than normal or irregular bleeding
  • Abdominal (belly) swelling with weight loss
Source: American Cancer Society’s website
Ovarian
21410
new cases expected in 2021
13770
deaths expected in 2021
93
% survival rate if detected early

Ovarian Cancer Research

In addition to specific projects listed below, genomics research is helping us attack ovarian cancer – and all types of cancer. NFCR has distinguished itself from other organizations by emphasizing long-term, transformative research and working to move people toward cancer genomics.

Danny R. Welch, Ph.D.
Danny R. Welch, Ph.D.

The diagnosis of metastatic or as it is sometimes called, advanced cancer, is devastating to patients and their loved ones. Dr. Danny Welch and his team have identified genetic changes that could predict whether or not patients will develop metastasis. This exciting research is ongoing and under close observation. At least some of the genetic changes occur in mitochondria – where cells convert nutrients into energy. Research may lead to a simple blood test and analysis of mitochondrial DNA. Test results may guide doctors to treat those patients susceptible to metastasis and may need more aggressive treatment, or save low-risk patients from the harsh side effects of treatments.

Dr. Welch’s team has also discovered eight ‘metastasis suppressor genes’. These genes can be turned off in cancer cells, allowing various stages of metastasis to proceed. BRMS1 gene regulates other genes to suppress metastasis. BRMS1 also makes metastatic cells remain dormant or in a ‘sleep mode’.  KISS1 gene suppresses cells from forming a new metastatic site. These genes, when turned on, suppress ovarian and breast cancer, melanoma and other cancer types. The ultimate research goal is to develop anti-metastasis therapeutics that mimic the ‘lost genes’ and arrest metastasis.

 

Wei Zhang, Ph.D.
Wei Zhang, Ph.D.

Dr. Wei Zhang is a leader of precision oncology, using NFCR support since 2006 to characterize underlying genetic mechanisms responsible for cancer growth and progression – the drivers of cancer. His research addresses the variability in cellular properties, within and across cancer types, which often leads to treatment resistance and poor survival in patients. Dr. Zhang conducts important research studies to advance Precision Oncology with the ultimate goal of maximizing outcomes for patients with ovarian cancer and other malignancies.

Susan B. Horwitz, Ph.D.
Susan B. Horwitz, Ph.D.

Dr. Susan Horwitz’s work has been instrumental in the development of Taxol®, a natural product drug used to treat over 1.5 million ovarian, breast, lung and pancreatic cancer patients. Dr. Horwitz collaborated with organic chemist Dr. Amos B. Smith III and developed other natural products to overcome resistance to Taxol that patient may experience.  They synthesized analogues of discodermolide, a natural product from a Caribbean Sea sponge that works similar to Taxol. In ovarian cancer models, the lead compounds showed promising results in their ability to kill cancer cells with reduced toxicity and could potentially develop into a new treatment for ovarian cancer patients.

Amos B. Smith III, Ph.D.
Amos B. Smith III, Ph.D.
Robert C. Bast, Jr., M.D.
Robert C. Bast, Jr., M.D.

Dr. Robert Bast, who received NFCR funding for 18 years, is best known for developing the OC125 (CA125) monoclonal antibody in 1981 that led to the production of the CA125 radioimmunoassay – the first useful biomarker for monitoring the course of patients with epithelial ovarian cancer. Since 20% of ovarian cancers do not make the CA125 protein, Dr. Bast and his team have been evaluating other biomarkers to complement CA125 as an early detection blood test. A panel of biomarkers would detect all of the cases early and reduce the poor outcome that most patients experience due to diagnosis after the cancer has spread. Other ways for early detection include Dr. Bast’s “two-step” approach using CA125 and sonography– which results from clinical trials show it effectively reduces fatalities by 20%.

Harold F. Dvorak, M.D.
Harold F. Dvorak, M.D.

Dr. Harold F. Dvorak, who received NFCR funding for over 30 years, discovered that tumor cells secrete a vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) and this seminal discovery provided the molecular basis for the field of angiogenesis (meaning “blood vessel formation”). Angiogenesis makes it possible for tumors to grow and spread, and Dr. Dvorak’s discovery helped pave the way for research on anti-angiogenesis treatments that can halt and even reverse tumor growth. In 2004, the first VEGF-targeting anti-angiogenic drug Avastin® was approved by the FDA for the treatment of colorectal cancer, and later, for the treatment of non-small cell lung cancer, renal cell carcinoma, the aggressive brain cancer glioblastoma (GBM) and certain types of cervical and ovarian cancers. Specifically, Avastin is approved for stage III and IV epithelial ovarian, fallopian tube, or primary peritoneal cancer in combination with carboplatin and paclitaxel chemotherapy after surgery.

Related Content

Phase II Clinical Trials May Be on the Way for Ovarian Cancer

Dubbed one of the notorious ‘silent killers’, ovarian cancer claims the lives of approximately 14,000 American women each year. Tragically, all women are at risk and early detection and sustainable treatment have proved to be difficult. However, a recent study provides new hope in the realm of ovarian cancer treatment. Women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer are commonly prescribed two chemotherapy drugs: paclitaxel and carboplatin. When a patient’s body resists these drugs, she is left with few options for continued ovarian cancer treatment. For those who do not experience initial resistance, the looming threat of recurrence suggests future difficulties. Thankfully, the ominous outlook for ovarian cancer treatment is looking brighter thanks to physician-scientist Robert C Bast, Jr, MD., and his past support from the National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR).  Acknowledging early funding from the NFCR, Dr. Bast has recently published his research results that provide substantial hope for women undergoing ovarian cancer treatment. In this study Dr. Bast explains that while carboplatin and paclitaxel can be a strong first-line treatment for ovarian cancer, the drugs are curing less than 20% of advanced stage ovarian cancer. However, a small molecule inhibitor can improve the response to paclitaxel in ovarian cancer cells and complex models during the pre-clinical research and the combined treatment is being used now in a Phase I trial for ovarian cancer. In the current paper, the research team discovered that the inhibitor increased carboplatin’s ability to induce DNA-damage and apoptosis (cell suicide), simply meaning the drug’s ability to kill cancerous cells improved. Dr. Bast continues to explain that discovering the impact of the molecular inhibitor on carboplatin provides an exciting outlook for upcoming clinical trials for ovarian cancer treatment. If the ongoing Phase I trial treating ovarian cancer patients with the combination of paclitaxel and the inhibitor goes well, a Phase I/II trial may be initiated using the molecule inhibitor and carboplatin. This exciting discovery suggests that women undergoing ovarian cancer treatment may have a more promising outlook, especially those who experience resistance to carboplatin and paclitaxel or have a recurrence of ovarian cancer. NFCR continues to support world leaders in ovarian cancer research. Amongst these current and past funded scientists are Dr. Danny Welch, Dr. Wei Zhang, Dr. Susan Horwitz, Dr. Amos B. Smith III, and Dr. Harold F. Dvorak. Each dedicated NFCR-funded researcher is committed to game-changing discoveries in cancer treatments, detection, and ultimately, a cure. Visit National Foundation for Cancer Research to learn how you can play a role in supporting world leaders in cancer research. Additional Reads You May Enjoy: Genetic Cues to Ovarian Cancer Explored The Development of Better Ovarian Cancer Biomarkers 5 Warning Signs Women Shouldn’t Ignore Stay connected with us! Receive our monthly e-newsletter and blogs featuring stories of inspiration, support resources, cancer prevention tips and more. Sign up here. 

We Are Stronger Than the Cancer: Maria’s Story

Maria Gonzales was no stranger to cancer by the time she was diagnosed in 2008. She had watched the disease affect many of her family members, from her mother and her grandmothers to her aunts and cousins. Despite seeing her loved ones battle cancer in various forms, her diagnosis came as an absolute surprise. “When the doctors said that I had cancer, I thought they were wrong – I was too young,” Maria said. A few months before her diagnosis, Maria was packing up her classroom from one school and settling into a new one. She eagerly welcomed this exciting change to her career, but the young teacher was experiencing a bit of stress and anxiety related to the move. Amidst her move, Maria began feeling extremely fatigued as well as noticing a reoccurring stint of lower back pain. “I attributed the fatigue and lower back pain to moving schools,” Maria began. “I was packing and moving boxes and feeling very stressed. I also had irregular periods and pain in the pelvic area. Then I became so bloated it looked like I was pregnant.” Realizing that something may not be right in her body, Maria met with a doctor. She went through many blood tests in search of an answer, but the tests were not revealing anything helpful. Finally, she was scheduled for a CT scan. The CT scan showed that Maria had a large mass from her ovaries to her spleen, thus spearheading her journey with cancer. “I had to have emergency surgery, which determined I had stage 3C ovarian cancer,” Maria shared. “I then had to have chemotherapy and I had anaphylactic shock from the first drug.” After changing medications, Maria continued receiving chemotherapy for approximately six months. During her treatment, Maria experienced a range of uncomfortable side effects, including the infamous nausea and vomiting. Though she expected side effects all along, Maria was quite surprised by the nature of the effects she experienced. “People think that every cancer patient looks the same, but we don’t,” Maria said. “I never lost my hair. I never expected to experience anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, fatigue or chemo brain. Cancer doesn’t have a face; it can happen to anyone and not everyone reacts the same way.” Once Maria finished her chemotherapy, she was declared NED – no evidence of disease. The excitement of this news was short-lived, as she soon learned that ovarian cancer was a chronic disease. Maria went on to have five reoccurrences. She continues maintenance treatment every four weeks and visits her doctor every eight weeks.  “Just because the treatment is over doesn’t mean the journey with cancer is over,” Maria reflected.  “The battle might not be physical, but it becomes mental.” Though every step of her journey with cancer sparked new and often unexpected challenges, Maria continuously adjusted to new ways of coping. For Maria, faith, hope, prayer, and the support of her loved ones got her through even the darkest moment. She learned to accept asking for help but, more importantly, she learned that her friends and family were always willing to provide that help. “It’s really important […]

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