Ovarian cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the ovaries. The female reproductive system contains two ovaries, one on each side of the uterus. The ovaries — each about the size of an almond — produce eggs (ova) as well as the hormones estrogen and progesterone.
Ovarian cancer often goes undetected until it has spread within the pelvis and abdomen. At this late stage, ovarian cancer is more difficult to treat. Early-stage ovarian cancer, in which the disease is confined to the ovary, is more likely to be treated successfully.
Surgery and chemotherapy are generally used to treat ovarian cancer.
Ovarian cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the ovaries. The ovaries — each about the size of an almond — produce eggs (ova) as well as the hormones estrogen, progesterone and testosterone.
Early-stage ovarian cancer rarely causes any symptoms. Advanced-stage ovarian cancer may cause few and nonspecific symptoms that are often mistaken for more common benign conditions.
Signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer may include:
Make an appointment with your doctor if you have any signs or symptoms that worry you.
If you have a family history of ovarian cancer or breast cancer, talk to your doctor about your risk of ovarian cancer. Your doctor may refer you to a genetic counselor to discuss testing for certain gene mutations that increase your risk of breast and ovarian cancers.
The ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, cervix and vagina (vaginal canal) make up the female reproductive system.
It's not clear what causes ovarian cancer, though doctors have identified factors that can increase the risk of the disease.
In general, cancer begins when a cell develops errors (mutations) in its DNA. The mutations tell the cell to grow and multiply quickly, creating a mass (tumor) of abnormal cells. The abnormal cells continue living when healthy cells would die. They can invade nearby tissues and break off from an initial tumor to spread elsewhere in the body (metastasize).
The type of cell where the cancer begins determines the type of ovarian cancer you have. Ovarian cancer types include:
Factors that can increase your risk of ovarian cancer include:
Inherited gene mutations. A small percentage of ovarian cancers are caused by gene mutations you inherit from your parents. The genes known to increase the risk of ovarian cancer are called breast cancer gene 1 (BRCA1) and breast cancer gene 2 (BRCA2). These genes also increase the risk of breast cancer.
Other gene mutations, including those associated with Lynch syndrome, are known to increase the risk of ovarian cancer.
There's no sure way to prevent ovarian cancer. But there may be ways to reduce your risk:
Tests and procedures used to diagnose ovarian cancer include:
Blood tests. Blood tests might include organ function tests that can help determine your overall health.
Your doctor might also test your blood for tumor markers that indicate ovarian cancer. For example, a cancer antigen (CA) 125 test can detect a protein that's often found on the surface of ovarian cancer cells. These tests can't tell your doctor whether you have cancer, but may give clues about your diagnosis and prognosis.
Once it's confirmed that you have ovarian cancer, your doctor will use information from your tests and procedures to assign your cancer a stage. The stages of ovarian cancer are indicated using Roman numerals ranging from I to IV, with the lowest stage indicating that the cancer is confined to the ovaries. By stage IV, the cancer has spread to distant areas of the body.
During a pelvic exam, your doctor inserts two gloved fingers inside your vagina. While simultaneously pressing down on your abdomen, he or she can evaluate your uterus, ovaries and other pelvic organs.
Treatment of ovarian cancer usually involves a combination of surgery and chemotherapy.
Operations to remove ovarian cancer include:
Chemotherapy is a drug treatment that uses chemicals to kill fast-growing cells in the body, including cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs can be injected into a vein or taken by mouth. Sometimes the drugs are injected directly into the abdomen (intraperitoneal chemotherapy).
Chemotherapy is often used after surgery to kill any cancer cells that might remain. It can also be used before surgery.
Targeted therapy uses medications that target the specific vulnerabilities present within your cancer cells. Targeted therapy drugs are usually reserved for treating ovarian cancer that returns after initial treatment or cancer that resists other treatments. Your doctor may test your cancer cells to determine which targeted therapy is most likely to have an effect on your cancer.
Targeted therapy is an active area of cancer research. Many clinical trials are testing new targeted therapies.
Palliative care is specialized medical care that focuses on providing relief from pain and other symptoms of a serious illness. Palliative care specialists work with you, your family and your other doctors to provide an extra layer of support that complements your ongoing care. Palliative care can be used while undergoing other aggressive treatments, such as surgery and chemotherapy.
When palliative care is used along with all of the other appropriate treatments, people with cancer may feel better and live longer.
Palliative care is provided by a team of doctors, nurses and other specially trained professionals. Palliative care teams aim to improve the quality of life for people with cancer and their families. This form of care is offered alongside curative or other treatments you may be receiving.
A diagnosis of ovarian cancer can be overwhelming and scary. In time you'll find ways to cope with your feelings, but in the meantime you might find it helpful to:
Start by making an appointment with your family doctor, general practitioner or a gynecologist if you have any signs or symptoms that worry you.
If your primary care doctor suspects you have ovarian cancer, you may be referred to a specialist in female reproductive cancers (gynecologic oncologist). A gynecologic oncologist is an obstetrician-gynecologist (OB-GYN) who has additional training in the diagnosis and treatment of ovarian and other gynecologic cancers.
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask other questions that occur to you.
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may make time to go over points you want to spend more time on. You may be asked: