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

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