Ovarian cancer is cancer that starts in the ovaries. The ovaries are the female reproductive organs that produce eggs.
Cancer - ovaries
Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cancer among women. It causes more deaths than any other type of female reproductive cancer.
The cause is unknown.
Risk of developing ovarian cancer include any of the following:
The fewer children a woman has and the later in life she gives birth, the higher her risk of ovarian cancer.
Women who have had breast cancer or have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer have an increased risk of ovarian cancer (due to defect in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes).
Women who take estrogen replacement only (not with progesterone) for 5 years or more may have a high risk of ovarian cancer. Birth control pills, though, decrease the risk of ovarian cancer.
Fertility drugs probably do not increase the risk of ovarian cancer.
Older women are at highest risk of developing ovarian cancer. Most deaths from ovarian cancer occur in women age 55 and older.
Ovarian cancer symptoms are often vague. Women and their doctors often blame the symptoms on other, more common conditions. By the time the cancer is diagnosed, the tumor has often spread beyond the ovaries.
See your doctor if you have the following symptoms on a daily basis for more than a few weeks:
No lab or imaging test has ever been shown to be able to screen for or diagnose ovarian cancer in its early stages, so no standard screening tests are recommended at this time.
Surgery is used to treat all stages of ovarian cancer. For early stages, surgery may be the only treatment. Surgery can involve removing both ovaries and fallopian tubes, the uterus, or other structures in the belly or pelvis.
Chemotherapy is used after surgery to treat any cancer that remains. Chemotherapy can also be used if the cancer comes back (relapses).
After surgery and chemotherapy, follow instructions about how often you should see your doctor and the tests you should have.
You can ease the stress of illness by joining a cancer support group. Sharing with others who have common experiences and problems can help you not feel alone.
Ovarian cancer is rarely diagnosed in its early stages. It is usually quite advanced by the time diagnosis is made:
About 3 of 4 women with ovarian cancer survive 1 year after diagnosis
Nearly half of women live longer than 5 years after diagnosis
If diagnosis is made early in the disease and treatment is received before the cancer spreads outside the ovary, the 5-year survival rate is high
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Contact your health care provider if you are a woman 40 years or older who has not recently had a pelvic exam. Routine pelvic exams are recommended for all women 20 years or older.
Call for an appointment with your provider if you have symptoms of ovarian cancer.
There are no standard recommendations for screening for ovarian cancer. Pelvic ultrasound or blood tests, such as the CA-125 has not been found to be effective and is not recommended.
BRCA gene testing may be done in women at high risk for ovarian cancer.
Removing the ovaries and tubes in women who have a proven problem in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene may reduce the risk of developing ovarian cancer. But ovarian cancer may still develop in other areas of the pelvis.
Morgan M, Boyd J, Drapking R, Seiden MV. Cancers arising in the ovary. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, et al., eds. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2013:chap 89.
Yi-Bin Chen, MD, Leukemia/Bone Marrow Transplant Program, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.