Ovarian Cancer: Overview
What is ovarian cancer?
Cancer is made of changed cells that grow out of control. The
changed (abnormal) cells often grow to form a lump or mass called a tumor. Cancer
cells can also grow into (invade) nearby areas. And they can spread to other parts
of the body. This is called metastasis.
Ovarian cancer is cancer that starts in your ovaries or at the end
of the fallopian tubes next to the ovary. Fallopian tubes are a pair of tubes
connecting your ovaries to your uterus. Only women have ovaries, so only women get
this kind of cancer. Your ovaries make hormones and release eggs which travel
through the fallopian tubes to the uterus.
Who is at risk for ovarian cancer?
A risk factor is anything that may increase your chance of having
a disease. The exact cause of someone’s cancer may not be known. But risk factors
can make it more likely for a person to have cancer. Some risk factors may not be in
your control. But others may be things you can change.
The risk factors for ovarian cancer include:
Never carried a pregnancy to term
Use of estrogen hormone therapy after menopause
Family history of ovarian and breast cancer
Family history of certain genetic cancer syndromes, such as
Personal history of breast, uterine, rectum, or colon
Talk with your healthcare provider about your risk factors for
ovarian cancer and what you can do about them.
Can ovarian cancer be prevented?
There is no sure way to prevent ovarian cancer. But there are some
things that may help lower your risk for it, such as:
Staying at a healthy weight
Taking birth control pills (oral contraceptives) for at
least 5 years
Having surgery to remove your ovaries and fallopian tubes if
you have a high risk for ovarian cancer
Are there screening tests for ovarian cancer?
There are no regular screening tests for ovarian cancer.
Screening tests are done to check for disease in people who don’t have
But regular pelvic exams are important. And you should see a
doctor if you have symptoms that last for more than a few weeks.
If you’re at high risk, you can talk with your healthcare
provider about using ultrasound to check your ovaries for changes. Regular blood
tests for the antigen CA-125 may also be an option. CA-125 is a protein found in
the cells of some kinds of ovarian cancer. But this isn’t a perfect screening
test. It’s not higher in all women with ovarian cancer. And if it is higher, it
doesn’t mean you have ovarian cancer.
What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?
Ovarian cancer often doesn’t cause any symptoms until it has
spread outside the ovary. Symptoms may include:
Indigestion or upset stomach
Belly swelling or discomfort
Pelvic pain or cramping
Bloating or a sense of fullness, especially after
Painful, frequent, or burning urination with no
Feeling tired all the time
No desire to eat
Vaginal discharge, bleeding, or irregular periods
Pain during sex
Many of these may be caused by other health problems. But it’s
important to see a healthcare provider if you have these symptoms. Only a healthcare
provider can tell if you have cancer.
How is ovarian cancer diagnosed?
Ovarian is most often diagnosed when you see your doctor because
of symptoms. The doctor will talk with you about your health history, symptoms, risk
factors, and family history of disease. Your provider will do a pelvic exam. You may
have blood tests, imaging tests, or a biopsy.
Unlike many other types of cancer, a biopsy is rarely needed to
diagnose ovarian cancer before surgery. This is because if cancer is present and
only inside the ovary, doing a biopsy breaks the covering of the ovary. This may
allow the cancer to spread. A diagnosis of ovarian cancer is often confirmed at the
time of surgery. At that time, the surgeon removes the tumor or tumors and takes
samples of nearby tissues to find out if the cancer has spread. In a lab, a
pathologist looks at the removed tissues to check for cancer cells.
After a diagnosis of ovarian cancer, you may have other tests.
These help your healthcare providers learn more about the cancer. They can help
determine the stage of the cancer. The stage is how much and how far the cancer has
spread (metastasized) in your body. It is one of the most important things to know
when deciding how to treat the cancer.
Once your cancer is staged, your healthcare provider will talk
with you about what the stage means for your treatment. Be sure to ask your
healthcare provider to explain the stage of your cancer to you in a way you can
How is ovarian cancer treated?
Your treatment choices depend on the type of ovarian cancer you
have, test results, and the stage of the cancer. The goal of treatment may be to
cure you, control the cancer, or help ease problems caused by the cancer. Talk with
your healthcare team about your treatment choices, the goals of treatment, and what
the risks and side effects may be.
Types of treatment for cancer are either local or systemic. Local
treatments remove, destroy, or control cancer cells in one area. Surgery and
radiation are local treatments. Systemic treatment is used to destroy or control
cancer cells that may have traveled around your body. When taken by pill or
injection, chemotherapy is a systemic treatment. You may have just one treatment or
a combination of treatments.
Ovarian cancer may be treated with:
Talk with your healthcare providers about your treatment options.
Make a list of questions. Think about the benefits and possible side effects of each
option. Talk about your concerns with your healthcare provider before making a
What are treatment side effects?
Cancer treatment such as chemotherapy and radiation can damage
normal cells. This can cause side effects such as hair loss, mouths sores, and
Talk with your healthcare provider about side effects you might
have and ways to manage them. There may be things you can do and medicines you can
take to help prevent or control side effects.
Coping with ovarian cancer
Many people feel worried, depressed, and stressed when dealing
with cancer. Getting treatment for cancer can be hard on your mind and body. Keep
talking with your healthcare team about any problems or concerns you have. Work
together to ease the effect of cancer and its symptoms on your daily life.
Here are tips:
Talk with your family or friends.
Ask your healthcare team or social worker for help.
Speak with a counselor.
Talk with a spiritual advisor, such as a minister or
Ask your healthcare team about medicines for depression or
Keep socially active.
Join a cancer support group.
Cancer treatment is also hard on the body. To help yourself stay
healthier, try to:
Eat a healthy diet, with a focus on high-protein foods.
Drink plenty of water, fruit juices, and other liquids.
Keep physically active.
Rest as much as needed.
Talk with your healthcare team about ways to manage
treatment side effects.
Take your medicines as directed by your team.
When should I call my healthcare provider?
Your healthcare provider will talk with you about when to call.
You may be told to call if you have any of the below:
New symptoms or symptoms that get worse
Signs of an infection, such as a fever
Side effects of treatment that affect your daily function or
don’t get better with treatment
Ask your healthcare provider what signs to watch for and when to
call. Know how to get help after office hours and on weekends and holidays.
Know the reason for your visit and what you want to
Before your visit, write down questions you want
Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and
remember what your provider tells you.
At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and
any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions
your provider gives you.
Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how
it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the
results could mean.
Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have
the test or procedure.
If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date,
time, and purpose for that visit.
Know how you can contact your provider if you have