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 in women. Overall, it makes up about 3% of all cancers in women.

Older women are at higher risk of developing ovarian cancer. The greatest number of cases occur in women who are over 60 years of age.

When it is found in its earliest stages, ovarian cancer can be cured 90-95% 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 a higher risk of ovarian cancer if you have:

  • A family history of ovarian cancer (others in your family have had the disease)
  • An Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jewish background
  • Never been pregnant
  • Had breast, uterine, or colorectal cancer

Women who have had children or who use oral contraceptives (birth control pills) are less likely to develop ovarian cancer. Women who use birth control pills for a longer period of time (at least 5 years) have the lowest risk.

What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?

In its early stages, ovarian cancer does not have many symptoms. The first sign of ovarian cancer is usually an enlarged (swollen) ovary. The ovaries are located deep within the pelvic cavity, so swelling may not be noticed until the later stages of the disease.

Symptoms of more advanced ovarian cancer include:

  • Swollen abdomen/bloating (caused by build-up of fluids that the tumor produces)
  • Lower abdominal and leg pain
  • Sudden weight loss or gain
  • Change in bathroom habits/routine
  • Nausea/indigestion
  • Swelling in the legs
  • Unusual bleeding or discharge from the vagina

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 higher in many conditions that are not cancer. 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. The ultrasound will also 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 found, the doctor will remove one or both ovaries and as much of the tumor as possible.

How is ovarian cancer treated?

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

During surgery (called an 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 to remove 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. The drugs paclitaxel (Taxol®) and cisplatin (Platinol®) are 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 lower your risk:

  • See your health care provider regularly.
  • 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. For those who are very high risk based on family history, genetic testing may be offered.
  • Eat a healthy diet.

Where can I learn more?

For more information, call:

  • National Cancer Institute Information Contact Center: 1.800.422.6237 (1.800.4.CANCER)
  • American Cancer Society: 1.800.227.2345


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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: 9/29/2015...index#4447