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Omentum? If you have never heard of it, you’re not alone. Most people are not familiar with it. Meanwhile, thousands of cancer survivors are living without an omentum.
Credit: Wiki Commons
The omentum has been known throughout history, with Aristotle referring to it as a “large apron” that covers the intestines, and Hippocrates believing the omentum played a role in secreting and absorbing peritoneal fluids. And, in modern times, the invention of the microscope in the late 1800s brought it into view.
Despite all of the attention, removal of the omentum has long been placed in the same “non-essential” category as the appendix and gall bladder. But now, some medical researchers – and individuals living without an omentum – are asking the medical community to take closer look.
Where is the omentum, and what does it do?
The omentum is an organ in the abdominal cavity that is part of the immune system and the lymphatic system. It is a thin fold of abdominal tissue that encases the stomach, large intestine and other abdominal organs, but this fatty lining also contains lymph nodes, lymph vessels, nerves and blood vessels.
The omentum serves as a first line of defense against toxins and infection, and it takes part in protecting the immunity of the peritoneal cavity. It helps control fluid exchange and modulate homeostasis in the area. Some of its cells also help digest fatty acids and support metabolism.
Standard protocol calls for removing the omentum in certain cancer staging surgeries since the omentum can collect and “hide” cancer cells. Omentum removal occurs in many ovarian cancer surgeries, and sometimes in uterine, fallopian tube, colon, appendix and other cancer surgeries. Survival rates are higher when the omentum is removed.
Full and partial omentectomies have also been performed in the treatment of other conditions, such as diabetes and bariatric surgery for severe obesity.
Yet, there may be some long-term ramifications for individuals living without an omentum, including:
- Immune surveillance can be affected
- Metabolic function can be affected; omentectomy has been correlated with an increase in some types of obesity and in sensitivity to insulin
- Stomach distension and fluid retention in the abdominal cavity due to blocked lymphatic blood vessels or in the absence of these fluid-managing lymphatic vessels
- Other digestive issues
A push to renew research into this overlooked gut organ is reminding us of its significant role. A 2017 review published in the journal Trends in Immunology reports that the omentum appears to interact with the organs that makes up our digestive system in complex and important ways, fighting disease and fine-tuning how the system works to keep our immune responses and metabolism in shape.
Studying the Effects of Eating Salty Food
Anecdotally, several ovarian cancer survivors have reported noticing digestive symptoms after consuming a salty meal. This has prompted a new study, “Processing Salty Food with/without an Omentum,” where participants eat popcorn and record their symptoms. Led by the Omentum Project and conducted as a survey, the study aims to determine if there is a difference in symptoms after consuming a salty food for women with an omentum and women without an omentum.
The Institutional Review Board (IRB) approved, online survey includes a “Citizen Science” project component. Participation involves a one-time, three-hour home experiment eating a specific salty food and reporting on specific measures before and after eating the salty food.
Ultimately, The Omentum Project aims to empower cancer survivors living without an omentum through awareness, education and research. This includes providing information about food, activities and other approaches to support manageing conditions such as Post-Omentectomy Fluid Congestion Syndrome (POFCS). A successful study will help prompt more research and attention by the medical community to provide answers and guidance for the many women living without an omentum.
The Omentum Project is seeking 400 participants for the voluntary study. Help spread the word, learn more, and take the qualification survey online: