Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer occurs when cells in the ovaries, the reproductive glands from which a woman's eggs are released, begin to grow rapidly and out of control, forming a tumor.

What Are the Ovaries?

The ovaries are the two glands located on opposite sides of a woman's uterus * . They are responsible for producing the hormones estrogen and progesterone. During the childbearing years, they are also responsible for releasing eggs for fertilization every month. After the eggs are released by the ovaries, they travel through the fallopian tubes * to the uterus, where they can be fertilized by sperm. After a woman reaches menopause * , the ovaries no longer produce eggs, and they produce a much lower level of hormones.

What Are Ovarian Cysts?

Cysts are fluid-filled sacs that can form in any structure in the body. Ovarian cysts are fairly common, especially during the childbearing years. They can cause discomfort, swelling, or pressure in the abdomen, pain during sex, difficulty urinating, and weight gain. Ovarian cysts often resolve spontaneously. If they do not resolve, they are removed surgically. Ovarian cysts are usually not cancerous and are not life-threatening.

What Is Ovarian Cancer?

Ovarian cancer occurs when cells divide and multiply too rapidly. Normally, when old cells die, the body gets rid of them to make room for new cells. These new replacement cells divide and multiply rapidly. This is only a problem when the body cannot rid itself of the old cells, resulting in too many cells. This buildup of cells forms a mass called a tumor. There are two kinds of tumors: benign * tumors, which are not cancerous, and malignant * tumors, which are. While they can both be removed, malignant tumors sometimes grow back. Malignant cells can grow rapidly in the tumor, and they can spread to other parts of the body. This spreading is called metastasis (meh-TAH-ta-sis). As a cancer metastasizes, the patient's prognosis becomes bleaker, which is why early detection of cancer is so important.

What Are the Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer?

Because its symptoms are often nonspecific, ovarian cancer can be very difficult to detect. Women often mistake its symptoms for another condition and do not seek treatment until after the cancer has metastasized.

The most common symptoms of ovarian cancer include abdominal discomfort and/or swelling; pressure in the back, abdomen, pelvis, or legs; nausea; indigestion; pain during sexual intercourse; and fatigue.

Anatomical view of the pelvis, ovaries, and fallopian tubes with a tumor on an ovary.

Anatomical view of the pelvis, ovaries, and fallopian tubes with a tumor on an ovary.
Illustration by Frank Forney. © 2016 Cengage Learning®.

How Is Ovarian Cancer Diagnosed?

Physicians may use several tests to diagnose ovarian cancer. These include:

In order to confirm a diagnosis of ovarian cancer, physicians will perform a laparotomy so that they may do a biopsy *

Actress Angelina Jolie carries a gene mutation called BRCA1 that puts her at high risk for breast and ovarian cancers.

Actress Angelina Jolie carries a gene mutation called BRCA1 that puts her at high risk for breast and ovarian cancers. In 2013, she underwent a preventive double mastectomy. In 2015, she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to avoid the risk of cancer.

In 1989 Gilda Radner, one of Saturday Night Live's most beloved stars, died from ovarian cancer. She was just 42 years old. Radner had first been diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1986 after experiencing fatigue and leg pain. After chemotherapy and radiation treatment, Radner went into remission, only to have her cancer return just a few years later. After undergoing a routine procedure, Radner slipped into a coma and never regained consciousness.

In 1991 Radner's husband Gene Wilder, along with Joanna Bull and Joel Siegel, established Gilda's Club in her memory. Upon being diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Radner had been quoted as saying, “Having cancer gave me membership in an elite club I'd rather not belong to.” The mission of Gilda's Club is to create welcoming communities of free support for everyone living with cancer—men, women, teens, and children—along with their families and friends.

How Is Ovarian Cancer Treated?

Treatment for ovarian cancer depends on the stage of the cancer when the cancer is detected. In the early stage of ovarian cancer, the most common treatment is the surgical removal of all visible signs of cancer, including the affected ovary and its fallopian tube, the adjoining lymph nodes * , and attached fatty tissue. Biopsy of any suspected tissues is performed. In these cases, for women of childbearing age, the uterus, healthy ovary, and healthy fallopian tube remain, leaving open the possibility for future pregnancies. In more advanced stages of ovarian cancer, women often undergo a complete hysterectomy, which involves the removal of the uterus, cervix * , fallopian tubes, and ovaries. Any visible signs of cancer in the nearby lymph nodes and attached fatty tissue are also removed. Physicians perform a biopsy on any tissue that appears abnormal. In the event of total hysterectomy, there is no possibility for future pregnancy.

For most women, physicians recommend chemotherapy following surgery. Chemotherapy is treatment with drugs that are designed to kill remaining cancer cells anywhere in the body. Chemotherapy can cause side effects such as pain, nausea, and vomiting. Immunotherapy, which works by boosting the immune system, also showed promise as of 2015.

In addition to these treatments, a healthy diet, plenty of exercise, and a strong support system are also important for women who are battling ovarian cancer.

See also Cancer: Overview • Menopause • Ovarian Cysts • Tumor


Books and Articles

Bristow, Robert E., Terri L. Cornelison, and F.J. Montz, eds. A Guide to Survivorship for Women Who Have Ovarian Cancer, 2nd ed. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015.

Dizon, Don S., Nadeem R. Abu-Rustum. 100 Questions and Answers about Ovarian Cancer, 3rd ed. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2015.

Grady, Denise. “Effective Ovarian Cancer Treatment Is Underused, Study Finds.” The New York Times. August 3, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/04/health/ovarian-cancer-abdominal-chemo-therapy-underused.html (accessed November 23, 2015).

Nordqvist, Christian. “Ovarian Cancer: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments.” Medical News Today. November 5, 2015. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/159675.php (accessed November 23, 2015).


American Cancer Society. “Ovarian Cancer.” http://www.cancer.org/cancer/ovariancancer/index (accessed October 26, 2015).

MedlinePlus. “Ovarian Cancer.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ovariancancer.html (accessed November 23, 2015).

Merck Manual: Consumer Version. “Ovarian Cancer.” http://www.merckmanuals.com/home/women-s-health-issues/cancers-of-the-female-reproductive-system/ovarian-cancer (accessed November 23, 2015).

University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. “Ovarian Cancer Facts and Types.” http://www.mdanderson.org/patient-and-cancer-information/cancer-information/cancer-types/ovarian-cancer/index.html (accessed November 24, 2015).


American Cancer Society. 250 Williams St. NW, Atlanta, GA 30303. Toll-free: 800-227-2345. Website: http://www.cancer.org (accessed October 27, 2015).

National Cancer Institute. BG 9609 MSC 9760, 9609 Medical Center Dr., Bethesda, MD 20892. Toll-free: 800-422-6237. Website: http://www.cancer.gov (accessed October 29, 2015).

National Ovarian Cancer Coalition. 2501 Oak Lawn Ave., Suite 435, Dallas, TX 75219. Toll-free: 888-682-7426. Website: http://www.ovarian.org (accessed October 26, 2015).

Ovarian Cancer National Alliance. 1101 14th Street NW, Suite 850, Washington, DC 20005. Toll-free: 866-399-6262. Website: www.ovariancancer.org (accessed October 26, 2015).

* uterus (YOO-teh-rus) is the muscular, pear-shaped internal organ in a woman where a baby develops until birth.

* fallopian tubes (fa-LO-pee-an toobz) are the two slender tubes that connect the ovaries and the uterus in females. They carry the ova, or eggs, from the ovaries to the uterus.

* menopause (MEN-o-pawz) is the natural decline of reproductive hormones and the end of menstruation. It generally occurs in women during their 40s and 50s. .

* benign (be-NINE) refers to a condition that is not cancerous or serious and will probably improve, go away, or not get worse.

* malignant (ma-LIG-nant) refers to a condition that is severe and progressively worsening.

* ultrasound, also called a sonogram, is a diagnostic test in which sound waves passing through the body create images on a computer screen.

* magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) produces computerized images of internal body tissues based on the magnetic properties of atoms within the body.

* computed tomography scans (kom-PYOO-ted toe-MAHgruh-fee), or CT, is a technique in which a machine takes many x-rays of the body to create a three dimensional picture. Formerly known as computerized axial tomography (CAT).

* biopsy (BI-op-see) is a test in which a small sample of skin or other body tissue is removed and examined for signs of disease.

* lymph nodes (LIMF) are small, bean-shaped masses of tissue containing immune system cells that fight harmful microorganisms. Lymph nodes may swell during infections.

* cervix (SIR-viks) is the lower, narrow end of the uterus that opens into the vagina.

Disclaimer:   This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.

(MLA 8th Edition)