Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer affects a woman’s ovaries and surrounding structures. It rarely causes symptoms at early stages, but may cause infertility or produce vague abdominal and pelvic discomfort at late stages. Ovarian cancer comprises 1.2% of cancer diagnoses and 2.3% of cancer deaths in the United States. The average five-year survival rate for all types of ovarian cancer is 49%. However, if ovarian cancer is found and treated before it spreads outside the ovaries, the five-year survival rate is 93%.

Ovarian cancer is linked with hereditary and environmental factors. It is diagnosed with a combination of clinical exam, imaging tests, and biopsy. Blood tumor markers, like CA-125, can be elevated. 

Staging is based on tumor invasiveness and extent of metastases. Subtypes correspond to the tissue type of origin—epithelial, stromal, germ cell, and small cell carcinoma. Treatment, which includes surgical and medical intervention, can improve survival and quality of life.  

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes ovarian cancer?

    Ovarian cancer is caused by a harmful overgrowth of cells in and around the ovaries. The cancer can start in the lining of the ovary or fallopian tube, the supportive tissue, or in the egg cell. There are several associated risk factors, including hereditary and acquired genetic mutations (alterations in the DNA), and the influence of hormones.

  • How is ovarian cancer detected?

    Ovarian cancer may be detected with a pelvic exam, but it might be too small to identify with this method. Imaging, including transvaginal ultrasound or non-invasive abdominal imaging may reveal the tumor. A biopsy is the method of definitive diagnosis. Cancer markers like CA-125, HE4, and CA-19-9 might be elevated in the blood, but are not specific for ovarian cancer.

  • How do you get ovarian cancer?

    There are several lifestyle risk factors associated with increased chances of developing ovarian cancer, but it isn’t clear whether they cause it. Obesity, smoking, estrogen therapy, a high-fat diet, a diet high in processed food, heavy alcohol use, a sedentary lifestyle, and the use of talc-containing feminine products have all been correlated with an increased risk of ovarian cancer.

  • Is ovarian cancer genetic?

    Genetic changes associated with ovarian cancer can be hereditary or acquired. BRCA 1 and BRCA 2, the most frequently seen mutations in this cancer, are inherited and are primarily associated with breast cancer. Overall, non-BRCA genetic changes, including ATM, STK11, RAD51B, are more common in this cancer, but there isn’t a single gene mutation that is more common than BRCA in ovarian cancer.

  • Is ovarian cancer curable?

    The likelihood of a cure of ovarian cancer depends on the stage at diagnosis. Surgery, radiation, hormone therapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapies can shrink or eliminate the tumor. Ovarian cancer diagnosed at stage 1 has a 5-year survival rate of over 90%, but more advanced ovarian cancer generally has a lower survival rate and can be fatal.

  • How fast does ovarian cancer spread?

    Ovarian cancer can spread within months after diagnosis, especially if it is already at a late stage. The cancer usually spreads faster in premenopausal than post menopausal women. Certain types, including high grade epithelial serous carcinoma and stromal tumors, tend to grow especially rapidly.

  • Does ovarian cancer hurt?

    Ovarian cancer doesn’t usually cause pain or any symptoms, but it can hurt, especially at late stages. Issues such as abdominal discomfort, bloating, back pain, frequent urination, and pain during sex can develop due to physical pressure or blockage caused by the tumor. Weight loss can occur due to metastasis or appetite changes.

  • How is ovarian cancer prevented?

    Having a first child before age 26, breastfeeding, using oral contraceptives, and tubal ligation surgery are associated with a decreased risk of ovarian cancer. If a woman has a family history of ovarian, breast, or colon cancer, regularly scheduled screening for ovarian cancer (as well as these other types of cancer) can identify it at an early stage to help prevent serious consequences.

Key Terms

The Stages of Ovarian Cancer

Explore interactive models that show how ovarian cancer can metastasize (spread) in the pelvis, and how the disease changes as it progresses.

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Page Sources
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Additional Reading