What is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer starts in the tissues in your ovaries, and there are different kinds of ovarian cancer. It can start in the tissue that covers the ovaries or inside the tissue that produces hormones. Sometimes (but not very often), it can start in the cells that produce eggs.

Common related conditions
Epithelial Ovarian Carcinoma

Causes of ovarian cancer

The exact cause of ovarian cancer is still not known.

Risk factors for ovarian cancer

If you have a history of ovarian cancer in your family, you could have a higher risk. If you have a family history of ovarian cancer, you should talk to your doctor about having regular pelvic tests and blood tests to screen for anything unusual.

Other things that increase your risk of getting ovarian cancer are:

  • Smoking
  • Using an IUD
  • Never getting pregnant
  • Taking fertility treatments
  • Being between the ages of 50 and 60
  • Taking estrogen hormone replacement therapy
  • Having a condition called polycystic ovary syndrome

Symptoms of ovarian cancer

Usually, there aren’t any symptoms of ovarian cancer in the early stages of the disease. This can make it hard to notice and treat early. Even when the cancer is more advanced, it's easy to confuse the symptoms with other conditions. Some of the signs to watch for are:

  • Losing weight
  • Swelling or bloating in your abdomen
  • Feeling fuller than normal when eating
  • Pain or discomfort in your pelvic region
  • Changes in your bathroom habits, such as not being able to have a bowel movement or needing to urinate more often
  • Vaginal bleeding after menopause
  • Unusual vaginal bleeding

Diagnosis of ovarian cancer

Doctors will perform a pelvic examination. More tests may be needed including:

  • Blood tests (CA-125) to check for a protein that's found on the surface of ovarian cancer cells
  • Imaging tests (ultrasound or CT scans) of your pelvic area and abdomen to look at your ovaries
  • Surgery to take fluid and tissue samples to check for cancer

Your doctor will use the results of these tests to determine if surgery is necessary. When surgery is done and a positive diagnosis is made, the cancer will be staged. Staging helps your doctor decide on options for treatment. Staging goes from Stage I to Stage IV.

Treatments for ovarian cancer

Treatment for ovarian cancer usually begins with surgery. Surgery is determined by the stage of cancer that is found. This can include removing both ovaries, the fallopian tubes and nearby lymph nodes and abdominal tissue — it’s easy for the cancer to spread to those areas. Your surgeon’s main goal is to remove as much of the cancer as possible so it can’t continue to spread.

Surgery is usually followed by chemotherapy, which is a technique that can kill any remaining cancer cells. If your doctor doesn't find the cancer until it's in its later stages, you might need chemotherapy right away instead of surgery. If tumors are found and are too large, treatment may begin with chemotherapy to shrink tumors before surgery.

Recovery from ovarian cancer

The American Cancer Society notes that recovery from ovarian cancer is different for each person. Some women have success with treatment right away and their cancer does not recur. Other women will never completely get rid of the cancer and may need chemotherapy treatments on and off for several years due to recurrence.

Part of recovering from ovarian cancer includes learning to manage the stress of living with this condition and/or the fear that it might return. An important part of your health plan should be learning a healthy way to manage not knowing what will happen next. Find a support system of friends or family members.

Even after your treatment ends, your doctor will want to keep monitoring you. Going to all follow-up appointments and having recommended tests and scans is very important. You'll probably need to see your doctor for several years.

Find an ovarian cancer specialist nearby

Mercy Health locations that can treat you