Thumbnail image of: Female Pelvis: Illustration

Ovarian Cancer

What is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer is the growth of abnormal cells in a woman’s ovaries. The 2 ovaries are part of the female reproductive system. They produce eggs and the female hormones estrogen and progesterone.

The sooner cancer is found and treated, the better your chances for recovery. However, even advanced cancer can usually be treated. Treatment may slow or stop the growth of the cancer and ease symptoms. Ask your healthcare provider what you can expect with the type of cancer that you have.

What is the cause?

The exact cause of cancer that starts in an ovary is usually not known. Most often it occurs in women over age 50.

You may have an increased risk of ovarian cancer if:

  • Your mother, sister, or daughter had ovarian cancer.
  • You or members of your family have had breast or colon cancer.
  • You have never given birth to a child.

Some studies suggest that women who use birth control pills, have a tubal sterilization, or breast-feed have a lower risk of getting ovarian cancer. Also, the more children you have had, the less likely it is you will have ovarian cancer.

What are the symptoms?

Ovarian cancer is very hard to detect in its early stages because at first there are often no clear symptoms. When symptoms do appear, they may include:

  • Belly pain, cramps, gas, or indigestion that doesn’t go away
  • Bloating or swollen belly
  • Nausea, diarrhea, or constipation
  • Feeling full even after a light meal
  • Frequent urination or leaking of urine
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss or gain
  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding
  • Pain with sex
  • Tiredness
  • Pelvic or back pain

If the cancer has spread to other parts of your body, your first symptoms may be in the part of the body where the cancer has spread. When cancer spreads from one part of the body to other parts, it’s called metastasis. What causes cancer to spread is not known. Cancer cells can:

  • Grow into the area around the tumor
  • Travel to other parts of the body through the bloodstream or the lymph system. The lymph system is part of your body’s system for fighting infection. The lymph system consists of lymph nodes that store blood cells (lymphocytes) to fight infection and vessels that carry fluid, nutrients, and wastes between your body and your bloodstream. New tumors then grow in these other areas.

When ovarian cancer spreads, it most often affects the intestines and other organs in the belly. It can also spread to the lungs and liver. The symptoms of ovarian cancer that has spread may include:

  • Loss of appetite, unexplained weight loss or gain, nausea, diarrhea, or constipation if the cancer has spread to your belly
  • A cough or trouble breathing if the cancer has spread to your lungs
  • Yellowish skin, pain, or swelling in your belly if the cancer has spread to your liver

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. Tests may include:

  • An ultrasound scan, which uses sound waves to show pictures of the ovaries
  • CT scan, which uses X-rays and a computer to show detailed pictures of the ovaries
  • Blood tests
  • Biopsy, which is the removal of a small sample of tissue for testing
  • PET scan, which is a series of detailed pictures that are taken after your healthcare provider injects a small amount of radioactive material into your blood
  • MRI, which uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to show detailed pictures of the ovaries
  • Laparoscopy, which uses a small lighted tube put into the belly through a small cut to look at the ovaries. During this procedure, your healthcare provider may remove a small sample of tissue for testing (biopsy).
  • Colonoscopy, a test in which a thin, flexible tube and tiny camera is put into the rectum and up into the colon to look for spread of the cancer to your intestines

How is it treated?

You and your healthcare provider will discuss possible treatments. You may also talk with a surgeon and a cancer specialist. Some things to think about when making treatment decisions are:

  • Your age
  • Your overall health
  • The stage of the cancer (how advanced the cancer is)
  • Whether the cancer has spread to other parts of your body

Possible treatments are:

  • Surgery to remove one or both ovaries. The uterus, the fallopian tubes (which carry eggs from the ovaries to the uterus), and nearby lymph nodes may also be removed.
  • Radiation therapy, which is the use of high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells
  • Chemotherapy (anticancer drugs), which uses medicine to kill cancer cells

Often more than 1 of these treatments are used.

Your treatment will also include:

  • Preventing infections
  • Controlling pain or other symptoms you may have
  • Controlling the side effects from treatments
  • Helping you manage your life with cancer

During and after treatment, you will need to have regular follow-up visits with your healthcare provider.

Ask your healthcare provider about clinical trials that might be available to you. Clinical trials are research studies to find effective cancer treatments. It’s always your choice whether you take part in one or not.

How can I take care of myself?

If you have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer:

  • Talk about your cancer and treatment options with your healthcare provider. Make sure you understand your choices.
  • Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider.
  • Ask your healthcare provider:
    • How and when you will hear your test results
    • How long it will take to recover
    • What activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
    • How to take care of yourself at home
    • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them
  • Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

It may also help to:

  • Eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise and rest.
  • Try to reduce stress and take time for activities that you enjoy. It may help to talk with a counselor about your illness.
  • Talk with your family and your healthcare providers about your concerns. Ask your healthcare provider any questions you have about the disease, treatments, side effects of the treatments, sexuality, support groups, and anything else that concerns you.
  • Tell your healthcare provider if your treatment causes discomfort. Usually there are ways to help you be more comfortable.

Joining a cancer support group can be very helpful. The support group can help you learn a lot about your care, treatment, and the cancer. Your local chapter of the American Cancer Society (ACS) may offer support groups. Look in the phone book for your local chapter.

How can I help prevent ovarian cancer?

At this time there is no known way of preventing ovarian cancer. Some women who have an increased risk of ovarian cancer may choose to have their healthy ovaries removed so that cancer cannot grow in them. The benefits and risks of this surgery should be discussed with your healthcare provider.

If you have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, you may be able to help prevent the cancer from spreading or coming back by:

  • Completing the full course of surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy treatments ordered by your healthcare provider.
  • Seeing your healthcare provider right away if you notice a return of any previous symptoms, or you develop new symptoms.

You can get more information from:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-06-09
Last reviewed: 2014-10-16
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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