Treating Ovarian Cancer

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Fewer than two percent of women get ovarian cancer. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there are almost no symptoms in the early stages, which is one reason 15,000 American women die of ovarian cancer every year. People most at risk for ovarian cancer are women with a family history of that or of breast cancer, women who have received hormone therapy or fertility treatments, smokers, women who have never been pregnant, women who use intrauterine devices, anyone who had menarche younger than 12 or menopause older than 52, and women with polycystic ovarian syndrome. Regardless of these risk factors, women between 50 and 60 are especially prone to develop the condition. It is recommended that anyone at risk for the silent disease get tested regularly.

Interestingly, though not being pregnant and using an intrauterine device for contraception increase the risk of ovarian cancer, suppressing ovulation might prevent it. Recent studies suggest that breastfeeding—which has a contraceptive effect because it triggers the release of certain hormones—and birth control pills reduce ovarian cancer risk in women with the BRCA gene mutations that would ordinarily make them particularly vulnerable. Surgical sterilization—a medical procedure in which the fallopian tubes are tied or severed, providing an essentially irreversible and permanent form of birth control—has a similar effect on ovarian cancer risk. The sterilization and breastfeeding connections are more firmly established than birth control pills, for which the evidence is more conflicting—past studies have shown oral contraception to raise cancer risk.

Other researchers have found a possible new treatment strategy to combat tumors. Ovarian cancer, like other cancers, is very resource-intensive, requiring bloodflow for oxygen and nutrients. There are drugs designed to block the blood vessels in the tumor and starve it, but often, patients develop a resistance to these drugs—the tumor figures out a way around it and sets up a new support system. Now scientists may have found the mechanism behind this regrowth: a protein that regulates a molecule that plays an essential part in blood vessel growth. Targeting that protein, in addition to the blood vessels already in the tumor, may make it possible to save the lives of more patients, and treat the cancer at more advanced stages.

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