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 doesnâ€™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
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, itâ€™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
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 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:
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. Itâ€™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.
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.
Ovarian Cancer: References
ACOG Practice Bulletin: Elective and Risk-Reducing Salpingo-oophorectomy. Number 89, January 2008, Reaffirmed 2012.
ACOG Practice Bulletin: Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Syndrome. Number 103, April 2009, Reaffirmed 2013.
ACOG Practice Bulletin: Management of Adnexal Masses. Number 83, July 2007, Reaffirmed 2013.
ACOG Practice Bulletin: Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Syndrome, Number 103, April 2009, Reaffirmed 2013.
Chen,L., et al Epithelial ovarian, fallopian tube, and primary peritoneal carcinoma: Clinical features and diagnosis http://www.UpToDate.com. Accessed October 12, 2013.
Gibbs, RS, Karlan, BY, et al. Danforthâ€™s Obstetrics and Gynecology, 10 th ed., Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2008. Accessed October 2, 2012 @ http://www.ovid.com.
Schorge, J., J. Schaeffer, L. Hoalvorson, B. Hoffmen, K. Bradshaw, F. Cunningham. Williams Gynecology. 1st ed. The Mcgraw Hill Companies, Inc. 2008. Accessed February 1, 2009 from http://www.accessmedicine.com.