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Diseases & Conditions

Ovarian Cancer - Frequently Asked Questions

What is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer is a malignant tumor (abnormal growth of tissue) that develops in a woman's ovaries. (Ovaries are the reproductive organs that hold a woman's eggs.) Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer death among women. It most often occurs in women in their 50s.

When found in its earliest stages, ovarian cancer can be cured 90 to 95 percent of the time. Unfortunately, early ovarian cancer is hard to detect and there are no good screening tools. Many cases of ovarian cancer are found after the cancer has spread to other organs. In these cases, the cancer is much more difficult to treat and cure.

What causes ovarian cancer?

The cause of ovarian cancer is not yet known. You have an increased risk of ovarian cancer if you have:

  • An early menopause
  • A family history of ovarian cancer
  • No pregnancies

Women who have had children or who use oral contraceptives (birth control pills) are less likely to develop ovarian cancer.

What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?

In its early stages, ovarian cancer has few symptoms. The first sign of ovarian cancer is usually an enlarged ovary. The ovaries are located deep within the pelvic cavity, so swelling may go unnoticed until later stages. Symptoms of more advanced ovarian cancer include:

  • Swollen abdomen/Bloating (caused by build-up of fluids produced by the tumor)
  • Lower abdominal and leg pain
  • Sudden weight loss or gain
  • Change in bowel or bladder function
  • Nausea/Indigestion
  • Swelling in the legs

How is ovarian cancer diagnosed?

A number of tests are used to diagnose ovarian cancer. These tests are usually done after a health care provider feels an enlarged ovary during a pelvic exam. At this point, the woman may need:

  • Blood tests - Blood tests look for a substance called CA-125. High levels of CA-125 in the blood can be a sign of cancer. However, CA-125 levels can be normal, even when cancer is present and elevated in many non-cancerous conditions. For this reason, blood tests are not used to screen for ovarian cancer.
  • Pelvic ultrasound - Ultrasound is used to get an electronic image of the ovaries. This image may show an enlarged ovary. Sometimes, the ultrasound will show growths that are not cancer. For this reason, other tests may also be ordered.
  • Laparoscopy - When there's good reason to suspect ovarian cancer, a type of surgery called laparoscopy may be performed. A thin viewing tube (laparoscope) is placed through a small cut (incision) made in the abdomen. Using the scope as a guide, the surgeon takes a sample of fluid and tissue from the growth. These samples are then tested for cancer.
  • Laparotomy - In this procedure, the doctor opens the abdomen using a larger cut and looks at the ovaries. If cancer is detected, one or both ovaries and as much tumor as possible will be removed.

How is ovarian cancer treated?

The main forms of treatment for ovarian cancer are surgery to remove the diseased tissue and chemotherapy (medicines to kill the cancer cells).

During surgery (called a oophorectomy) one or both of the ovaries are removed. When the cancer has spread or is likely to spread, a total abdominal hysterectomy may be performed. This surgery removes both ovaries, the Fallopian tubes, the uterus and nearby lymph glands. In young women who still want to have children, only the diseased ovary may be removed. The remaining ovary is then watched closely for signs of cancer.

Chemotherapy may be used after surgery to prevent the cancer from spreading. Paclitaxel (Taxol) and cisplatin (Platinol) are drugs commonly used to treat ovarian cancer. Radiation (X-ray treatment) may also be used occasionally.

How can I protect myself from ovarian cancer?

It's difficult for a woman to protect herself from ovarian cancer. Here are a few steps you can take to lessen your risk:

  • Get a yearly pelvic exam.
  • Report any irregular vaginal bleeding or abdominal pain to your doctor.
  • If you have close family members (mother, sister or daughter) with ovarian cancer, discuss your risk factors with your health care provider.
  • Eat a low-fat diet.

Where can I learn more?

For more information, call:

National Cancer Information Hotline: 1.800.422.6237 (1.800.4.CANCER)

American Cancer Society: 1.800.227.2345

Sources

© Copyright 1995-2011 The Cleveland Clinic Foundation. All rights reserved.

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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 5/20/2011...index#4447

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