ovarian cancer


What is ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer can affect one or both of the ovaries. The ovaries are a pair of small organs in the female reproductive system that contain and release an egg once a month in women of menstruating age. This is known as ovulation. Ovarian cancers were previously believed to begin only in the ovaries, but recent evidence suggests that many ovarian cancers may actually start in the cells in the far (distal) end of the fallopian tubes.

In general, cancer begins when a cell develops errors (mutations) in its DNA. The mutations tell the cell to grow and multiply quickly, creating a mass (tumor) of abnormal cells. The abnormal cells continue living when healthy cells would die. They can invade nearby tissues and break off from an initial tumor to spread elsewhere in the body (metastasize).

There are several types of ovarian cancer. They include:

  • Epithelial ovarian cancer, which affects the outer surface layers of the ovary; it is by far the most common type. About 90 percent of ovarian cancers are epithelial tumors.
  • Germ cell ovarian cancer, which originate in the cells that make the eggs. These rare ovarian cancers tend to occur in younger women.
  • Stromal tumors, which develop within the cells that release female hormones. Stromal tumors are usually diagnosed at an earlier stage than other ovarian cancers. About 7 percent of ovarian tumors are stromal.

It is also possible to have borderline epithelial tumors which are not as aggressive as other epithelial tumors. These are sometimes called ‘low malignant potential’ or LMP tumors.

Ovarian cancer mainly develops in older women who have experienced menopause (usually over the age of 50), but it can affect women of any age. About half of the women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer are 63 years or older. It is more common in white women than African-American women.

Ovarian cancer can spread to other parts of the reproductive system and the surrounding areas, including the womb (uterus), vagina and abdomen.

The symptoms of ovarian cancer can be difficult to recognize, particularly in the early stages of the disease. They are often the same as the symptoms of other, less serious, conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or premenstrual syndrome (PMS). The symptoms of ovarian cancer can be similar to those of other conditions making them difficult to recognize. However, there are early symptoms to look out for such as pain in the pelvis and lower stomach, persistent bloating and difficulty eating. Consult your doctor if you are experiencing any of these symptoms.

Ovarian cancer often goes undetected until it has spread within the pelvis and abdomen. At this late stage, ovarian cancer is more difficult to treat and is frequently fatal. Early-stage ovarian cancer, in which the disease is confined to the ovary, is more likely to be treated successfully.

Surgery and chemotherapy are generally used to treat ovarian cancer.

The American Cancer Society estimates for ovarian cancer in the United States for 2018 are 1:

  • About 22,240 women will receive a new diagnosis of ovarian cancer.
  • About 14,070 women will die from ovarian cancer.
  • The rate at which women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer has been slowly falling over the past 20 years.

Ovarian cancer ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women, accounting for more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system. A woman’s risk of getting ovarian cancer during her lifetime is about 1 in 78. Her lifetime chance of dying from ovarian cancer is about 1 in 108. (These statistics don’t count low malignant potential ovarian tumors.)

Known risk factors for ovarian cancer include:

  • getting older: women who are over 50 are more likely to develop ovarian cancer than younger women
  • inheriting a faulty gene (called a gene mutation) that increases the risk of ovarian cancer
  • having a strong family history of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, or some other cancers, including colorectal cancer and endometrial cancer

Only around 5-10% of all ovarian cancers are due to inherited factors.

Research suggests that the risk of ovarian cancer is slightly higher for women who:

  • have medical conditions such as endometriosis
  • use long-term hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
  • had early puberty (menstruating before 12) or late menopause (onset after 50)
  • smoke cigarettes
  • are obese

Women have a lower risk of developing ovarian cancer if:

  • they had a baby before the age of 26
  • they used oral contraceptives (the pill) for at least 3 months
  • they have had a hysterectomy (removal of the uterus) and tubal ligation (tubes tied)
When to see a doctor

Make an appointment with your doctor if you have any signs or symptoms that worry you.

If you have a family history of ovarian cancer or breast cancer, talk to your doctor about your risk of ovarian cancer. Your doctor may refer you to a genetic counselor to discuss testing for certain gene mutations that increase your risk of breast and ovarian cancers.

What are the ovaries?

Ovaries are reproductive glands found only in females (women). The ovaries produce eggs (ova) for reproduction. The eggs travel from the ovaries through the fallopian tubes into the uterus where the fertilized egg settles in and develops into a fetus. The ovaries are also the main source of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone. One ovary is on each side of the uterus.

The ovaries are mainly made up of 3 kinds of cells. Each type of cell can develop into a different type of tumor:

  • Epithelial tumors start from the cells that cover the outer surface of the ovary. Most ovarian tumors are epithelial cell tumors.
  • Germ cell tumors start from the cells that produce the eggs (ova).
  • Stromal tumors start from structural tissue cells that hold the ovary together and produce the female hormones estrogen and progesterone.

Some of these tumors are benign (non-cancerous) and never spread beyond the ovary. Malignant (cancerous) or borderline (low malignant potential) ovarian tumors can spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body and can be fatal.

Figure 1. Female reproductive system


Figure 2. The ovaries lie in shallow depressions in the lateral wall of the pelvic cavity

ovary locationFigure 3. Ovary blood supply

Ovary blood supply

Figure 4. Ovary anatomy

ovary anatomy

Ovarian cancer types

Epithelial ovarian tumors

Epithelial ovarian tumors start in the outer surface of the ovaries. These tumors can be benign (not cancer), borderline (low malignant potential), or malignant (cancer).

Benign epithelial ovarian tumors

Epithelial ovarian tumors that are benign don’t spread and usually don’t lead to serious illness. There are several types of benign epithelial tumors including serous cystadenomas, mucinous cystadenomas, and Brenner tumors.

Borderline epithelial tumors

When looked at in the lab, some ovarian epithelial tumors don’t clearly appear to be cancerous and are known as borderline epithelial ovarian cancer. The two most common types are atypical proliferative serous carcinoma and atypical proliferative mucinous carcinoma. These tumors were previously called tumors of low malignant potential (LMP tumors). These are different from typical ovarian cancers because they don’t grow into the supporting tissue of the ovary (called the ovarian stroma). If they do spread outside the ovary, for example, into the abdominal cavity (belly), they might grow on the lining of the abdomen but not into it.

Borderline tumors tend to affect younger women than the typical ovarian cancers. These tumors grow slowly and are less life-threatening than most ovarian cancers.

Malignant epithelial ovarian tumors

Cancerous epithelial tumors are called carcinomas. About 85% to 90% of malignant ovarian cancers are epithelial ovarian carcinomas. These tumor cells have several features (when looked at in the lab) that can be used to classify epithelial ovarian carcinomas into different types. The serous type is by far the most common, and can include high grade and low grade tumors. The other main types include mucinous, endometrioid, and clear cell.

  • Serous carcinomas (52%)
  • Clear cell carcinoma (6%)
  • Mucinous carcinoma (6%)
  • Endometroid carcinoma (10%)

Each ovarian cancer is given a grade, based on how much the tumor cells look like normal tissue:

  • Grade 1 epithelial ovarian carcinomas look more like normal tissue and tend to have a better prognosis (outlook).
  • Grade 3 epithelial ovarian carcinomas look less like normal tissue and usually have a worse outlook.

Other traits are also taken into account, such as how fast the cancer cells grow and how well they respond to chemotherapy, to come up with the tumor’s type:

  • Type 1 tumors tend to grow slowly and cause fewer symptoms. These tumors also seem not to respond well to chemotherapy. Low grade (grade 1) serous carcinoma, clear cell carcinoma, mucinous carcinoma and endometroid carcinoma are examples of type 1 tumors.
  • Type 2 tumors grow fast and tend to spread sooner. These tumors tend to respond better to chemotherapy. High grade (grade 3) serous carcinoma is an example of a type 2 tumor.

Other cancers that are similar to epithelial ovarian cancer

Primary peritoneal carcinoma

Primary peritoneal carcinoma is a rare cancer closely related to epithelial ovarian cancer. At surgery, it looks the same as an epithelial ovarian cancer that has spread through the abdomen. In the lab, primary peritoneal carcinoma also looks just like epithelial ovarian cancer. Other names for this cancer include extra-ovarian (meaning outside the ovary) primary peritoneal carcinoma and serous surface papillary carcinoma.

Primary peritoneal carcinoma appears to start in the cells lining the inside of the fallopian tubes.

Like ovarian cancer, primary peritoneal carcinoma tends to spread along the surfaces of the pelvis and abdomen, so it is often difficult to tell exactly where the cancer first started. This type of cancer can occur in women who still have their ovaries, but it is of more concern for women who have had their ovaries removed to prevent ovarian cancer. This cancer does rarely occur in men.

Symptoms of primary peritoneal carcinoma are similar to those of ovarian cancer, including abdominal pain or bloating, nausea, vomiting, indigestion, and a change in bowel habits. Also, like ovarian cancer, primary peritoneal carcinoma may elevate the blood level of a tumor marker called CA-125.

Women with primary peritoneal carcinoma usually get the same treatment as those with widespread ovarian cancer. This could include surgery to remove as much of the cancer as possible (a process called debulking that is discussed in the section about surgery), followed by chemotherapy like that given for ovarian cancer. Its outlook is likely to be similar to widespread ovarian cancer.

Fallopian tube cancer

This is another rare cancer that is similar to epithelial ovarian cancer. It begins in the tube that carries an egg from the ovary to the uterus (the fallopian tube). Like primary peritoneal carcinoma, fallopian tube cancer and ovarian cancer have similar symptoms. The treatment for fallopian tube cancer is much like that for ovarian cancer, but the outlook (prognosis) is slightly better.

Ovarian germ cell tumors

Germ cells usually form the ova or eggs in females and the sperm in males. Most ovarian germ cell tumors are benign, but some are cancerous and may be life threatening. Less than 2% of ovarian cancers are germ cell tumors. Overall, they have a good outlook, with more than 9 out of 10 patients surviving at least 5 years after diagnosis. There are several subtypes of germ cell tumors. The most common germ cell tumors are teratomas, dysgerminomas, endodermal sinus tumors, and choriocarcinomas. Germ cell tumors can also be a mix of more than a single subtype.


Teratomas are germ cell tumors with areas that, when seen under the microscope, look like each of the 3 layers of a developing embryo: the endoderm (innermost layer), mesoderm (middle layer), and ectoderm (outer layer). This germ cell tumor has a benign form called mature teratoma and a cancerous form called immature teratoma.

The mature teratoma is by far the most common ovarian germ cell tumor. It is a benign tumor that usually affects women of reproductive age (teens through forties). It is often called a dermoid cyst because its lining is made up of tissue similar to skin (dermis). These tumors or cysts can contain different kinds of benign tissues including, bone, hair, and teeth. The patient is cured by surgical removal of the cyst, but sometimes a new cyst develops later in the other ovary.

Immature teratomas are a type of cancer. They occur in girls and young women, usually younger than 18. These are rare cancers that contain cells that look like those from embryonic or fetal tissues such as connective tissue, respiratory passages, and brain. Tumors that are relatively more mature (called grade 1 immature teratoma) and haven’t spread beyond the ovary are treated by surgical removal of the ovary. When they have spread beyond the ovary and/or much of the tumor has a very immature appearance (grade 2 or 3 immature teratomas), chemotherapy is recommended in addition to surgery.


This type of cancer is rare, but it is the most common ovarian germ cell cancer. It usually affects women in their teens and twenties. Dysgerminomas are considered malignant (cancerous), but most don’t grow or spread very rapidly. When they are limited to the ovary, more than 75% of patients are cured by surgically removing the ovary, without any further treatment. Even when the tumor has spread further (or if it comes back later), surgery, radiation therapy, and/or chemotherapy are effective in controlling or curing the disease in about 90% of patients.

Endodermal sinus tumor (yolk sac tumor) and choriocarcinoma

These very rare tumors typically affect girls and young women. They tend to grow and spread rapidly but are usually very sensitive to chemotherapy. Choriocarcinoma that starts in the placenta (during pregnancy) is more common than the kind that starts in the ovary. Placental choriocarcinomas usually respond better to chemotherapy than ovarian choriocarcinomas do.

Ovarian stromal tumors

About 1% of ovarian cancers are ovarian stromal cell tumors. More than half of stromal tumors are found in women older than 50, but about 5% of stromal tumors occur in young girls.

The most common symptom of these tumors is abnormal vaginal bleeding. This happens because many of these tumors produce female hormones (estrogen). These hormones can cause vaginal bleeding (like a period) to start again after menopause. In young girls, these tumors can also cause menstrual periods and breast development to occur before puberty.

Less often, stromal tumors make male hormones (like testosterone). If male hormones are produced, the tumors can cause normal menstrual periods to stop. They can also make facial and body hair grow. If the stromal tumor starts to bleed, it can cause sudden, severe abdominal pain.

Types of malignant (cancerous) stromal tumors include granulosa cell tumors (the most common type), granulosa-theca tumors, and Sertoli-Leydig cell tumors, which are usually considered low-grade cancers. Thecomas and fibromas are benign stromal tumors. Cancerous stromal tumors are often found at an early stage and have a good outlook, with more than 75% of patients surviving long-term.

Ovarian cysts

An ovarian cyst is a collection of fluid inside an ovary. Most ovarian cysts occur as a normal part of the process of ovulation (egg release) — these are called functional cysts. These cysts usually go away within a few months without any treatment. If you develop a cyst, your doctor may want to check it again after your next menstrual cycle (period) to see if it has gotten smaller.

An ovarian cyst can be more concerning in a female who isn’t ovulating (like a woman after menopause or a girl who hasn’t started her periods), and the doctor may want to do more tests. The doctor may also order other tests if the cyst is large or if it does not go away in a few months. Even though most of these cysts are benign (not cancer), a small number of them could be cancer. Sometimes the only way to know for sure if the cyst is cancer is to take it out with surgery. Cysts that appear to be benign (based on how they look on imaging tests) can be observed (with repeated physical exams and imaging tests), or removed with surgery.

Ovarian cancer signs and symptoms

Early-stage ovarian cancer rarely causes any symptoms. Advanced-stage ovarian cancer may cause few and nonspecific symptoms that are often mistaken for more common benign conditions.

Signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer may include:

  • Abdominal bloating or swelling
  • Quickly feeling full when eating
  • Weight loss
  • Discomfort in the pelvis area
  • Changes in bowel habits, such as constipation
  • A frequent need to urinate

These symptoms are also commonly caused by benign (non-cancerous) diseases and by cancers of other organs. When they are caused by ovarian cancer, they tend to be persistent and a change from normal − for example, they occur more often or are more severe. These symptoms are more likely to be caused by other conditions, and most of them occur just about as often in women who don’t have ovarian cancer. But if you have these symptoms more than 12 times a month, see your doctor so the problem can be found and treated if necessary.

Others symptoms of ovarian cancer can include:

  • Fatigue (extreme tiredness)
  • Upset stomach
  • Back pain
  • Pain during sex
  • Constipation
  • Changes in a woman’s period, such as heavier bleeding than normal or irregular bleeding
  • Abdominal (belly) swelling with weight loss

Early symptoms of ovarian cancer

The symptoms of ovarian cancer can be difficult to recognize, particularly in the early stages of the disease. They are often the same as the symptoms of other, less serious, conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or premenstrual syndrome (PMS). However, the most common symptoms that may indicate ovarian cancer are:

  • abdominal bloating or feeling full
  • abdominal or back pain
  • appetite loss or feeling full quickly
  • changes in toilet habits
  • needing to urinate more often
  • unexplained weight loss or weight gain
  • indigestion or heartburn
  • fatigue
  • bleeding in-between periods or after menopause
  • indigestion or nausea
  • pain during intercourse

If any of these symptoms are unusual for you, and they persist, it’s important to see your doctor. Many of these symptoms may be the result of other conditions in the pelvic area.

If you have any of these symptoms, keep a symptom diary to see how many of these symptoms you have over a longer period. Bear in mind that ovarian cancer is rare in women under 40 years of age. If you regularly have any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor. It’s unlikely that they are being caused by a serious problem, but it’s best to be checked.

If you’ve already seen your doctor and the symptoms continue or get worse, it is important to go back and explain this, as you know your body better than anyone.

Can ovarian cancer be found early?

Only about 20% of ovarian cancers are found at an early stage. When ovarian cancer is found early, about 94% of patients live longer than 5 years after diagnosis.

Ways to find ovarian cancer early

Regular women’s health exams

During a pelvic exam, the health care professional feels the ovaries and uterus for size, shape, and consistency. A pelvic exam can be useful because it can find some female cancers at an early stage, but most early ovarian tumors are difficult or impossible to feel. Pelvic exams may, however, help find other cancers or female conditions. Women should discuss the need for these exams with their doctor.

The Pap test is effective in early detection of cervical cancer, but it isn’t a test for ovarian cancer. Rarely, ovarian cancers are found through Pap tests, but usually they are at an advanced stage.

See a doctor if you have symptoms

Early cancers of the ovaries often cause no symptoms. Symptoms of ovarian cancer can also be caused by other, less serious conditions. By the time ovarian cancer is considered as a possible cause of these symptoms, it usually has already spread. Also, some types of ovarian cancer can rapidly spread to nearby organs. Prompt attention to symptoms may improve the odds of early diagnosis and successful treatment. If you have symptoms similar to those of ovarian cancer almost daily for more than a few weeks, report them right away to your health care professional.

Screening tests for ovarian cancer

Screening tests and exams are used to detect a disease, like cancer, in people who don’t have any symptoms. (For example, a mammogram can often detect breast cancer in its earliest stage, even before a doctor can feel the cancer.)

There has been a lot of research to develop a screening test for ovarian cancer, but there hasn’t been much success so far. The 2 tests used most often (in addition to a complete pelvic exam) to screen for ovarian cancer are transvaginal ultrasound (TVUS) and the CA-125 blood test.

  • TVUS (transvaginal ultrasound) is a test that uses sound waves to look at the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries by putting an ultrasound wand into the vagina. It can help find a mass (tumor) in the ovary, but it can’t actually tell if a mass is cancer or benign. When it is used for screening, most of the masses found are not cancer.
  • The CA-125 blood test measures the amount of a protein called CA-125 in the blood. Many women with ovarian cancer have high levels of CA-125. This test can be useful as a tumor marker to help guide treatment in women known to have ovarian cancer, because a high level often goes down if treatment is working. But checking CA-125 levels has not been found to be as useful as a screening test for ovarian cancer. The problem with using this test for ovarian cancer screening is that high levels of CA-125 is more often caused by common conditions such as endometriosis and pelvic inflammatory disease. Also, not everyone who has ovarian cancer has a high CA-125 level. When someone who is not known to have ovarian cancer has an abnormal CA-125 level, the doctor might repeat the test (to make sure the result is correct) and may consider ordering a transvaginal ultrasound test.

Better ways to screen for ovarian cancer are being researched but currently there are no reliable screening tests. Hopefully, improvements in screening tests will eventually lead to fewer deaths from ovarian cancer.

If you’re at average risk

There are no recommended screening tests for ovarian cancer for women who do not have symptoms and are not at high risk of developing ovarian cancer. In studies of women at average risk of ovarian cancer, using transvaginal ultrasound (TVUS) and CA-125 for screening led to more testing and sometimes more surgeries, but did not lower the number of deaths caused by ovarian cancer. For that reason, no major medical or professional organization recommends the routine use of transvaginal ultrasound (TVUS) or the CA-125 blood test to screen for ovarian cancer in women at average risk.

If you’re at high risk

Some organizations state that transvaginal ultrasound (TVUS) and CA-125 may be offered to screen women who have a high risk of ovarian cancer due to an inherited genetic syndrome such as Lynch syndrome, BRCA gene mutations or a strong family history of breast and ovarian cancer. Still, even in these women, it has not been proven that using these tests for screening lowers their chances of dying from ovarian cancer.
Screening tests for germ cell tumors/stromal tumors

There are no recommended screening tests for germ cell tumors or stromal tumors. Some germ cell cancers release certain protein markers such as human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) and alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) into the blood. After these tumors have been treated by surgery and chemotherapy, blood tests for these markers can be used to see if treatment is working and to determine if the cancer is coming back.

Ovarian cancer causes

Experts don’t yet know exactly what causes most ovarian cancers.

Experts do know some factors (risk factors) that make a woman more likely to develop epithelial ovarian cancer. Much less is known about risk factors for germ cell and stromal tumors of the ovaries.

The most recent and important finding about the cause of ovarian cancer is that it starts in cells at the tail ends of the fallopian tubes and not necessarily in the ovary itself. This new information may open more research studies looking at preventing and screening for this type of cancer.

There are many theories about the causes of ovarian cancer. Some of them came from looking at the things that change the risk of ovarian cancer. For example, pregnancy and taking birth control pills both lower the risk of ovarian cancer. Since both of these things reduce the number of times the ovary releases an egg (ovulation), some researchers think that there may be some relationship between ovulation and the risk of developing ovarian cancer.

Also, experts know that tubal ligation and hysterectomy lower the risk of ovarian cancer. One theory to explain this is that some cancer-causing substances may enter the body through the vagina and pass through the uterus and fallopian tubes to reach the ovaries. This would explain how removing the uterus or blocking the fallopian tubes affects ovarian cancer risk.

Another theory is that male hormones (androgens) can cause ovarian cancer.

Gene changes related to ovarian cancer

Researchers have made great progress in understanding how certain mutations (changes) in DNA can cause normal cells to become cancerous. DNA is the chemical that carries the instructions for nearly everything your cells do. You usually look like your parents because they are the source of your DNA. However, DNA affects more than the way you look. Some genes (parts of your DNA) contain instructions for controlling when our cells grow and divide. Mutations in these genes can lead to the development of cancer.

Inherited genetic mutations

A small portion of ovarian cancers occur in women with inherited mutations linked to an increased risk of ovarian cancer. These include mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, as well as the genes related to other family cancer syndromes linked to an increased risk of ovarian cancer, such as PTEN (PTEN tumor hamartoma syndrome), STK11 (Peutz-Jeghers syndrome), MUTYH (MUTYH-asociated polyposis, and the many genes that can cause hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (MLH1, MLH3, MSH2, MSH6, TGFBR2, PMS1, and PMS2).

Genetic tests can detect mutations associated with these inherited syndromes. If you have a family history of cancers linked to these syndromes, such as breast and ovarian cancers, thyroid and ovarian cancer, and/or colorectal and endometrial (uterine) cancer, you might want to ask your doctor about genetic counseling and testing. The American Cancer Society recommends discussing genetic testing with a qualified cancer genetics professional before any genetic testing is done.

Acquired genetic changes

Most mutations related to ovarian cancer are not inherited but instead occur during a woman’s life and are called acquired mutations. In some cancers, these types of mutations leading to the development of cancer may result from radiation or cancer-causing chemicals, but there is no evidence for this in ovarian cancer. So far, studies haven’t been able to specifically link any single chemical in the environment or in our diets to mutations that cause ovarian cancer. The cause of most acquired mutations remains unknown.

Most ovarian cancers have several acquired mutations. Research has suggested that tests to identify acquired mutations in ovarian cancers, like the TP53 tumor suppressor gene or the HER2 oncogene, can help predict a woman’s prognosis. The role of these tests is still not certain, and more research is needed.

Ovarian cancer risk factors

Generally, it’s not possible to say what causes ovarian cancer in an individual woman. However, some features are more common among women who have developed ovarian cancer. These features are called risk factors. Having certain risk factors increases a woman’s chance of developing ovarian cancer.

Having one or more risk factors for ovarian cancer doesn’t mean a woman will definitely develop ovarian cancer. In fact, many women with ovarian cancer have no obvious risk factors.

Factors that increase your risk of ovarian cancers

Getting older

The risk of developing ovarian cancer gets higher with age. Ovarian cancer is rare in women younger than 40. Most ovarian cancers develop after menopause. Half of all ovarian cancers are found in women 63 years of age or older.

Being overweight or obese

Obesity has been linked to a higher risk of developing many cancers. The current information available for ovarian cancer risk and obesity is not clear. Obese women (those with a body mass index [BMI] of at least 30) may have a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer, but not necessarily the most aggressive types, such as high grade serous cancers. Obesity may also affect the overall survival of a woman with ovarian cancer.

Having children later or never having a full-term pregnancy

Women who have their first full-term pregnancy after age 35 or who never carried a pregnancy to term have a higher risk of ovarian cancer.

Using fertility treatment

Fertility treatment with in vitro fertilization (IVF) seems to increase the risk of the type of ovarian tumors known as “borderline” or “low malignant potential” (LMP tumors). Other studies, however, have not shown an increased risk of invasive ovarian cancer with fertility drugs. If you are taking fertility drugs, you should discuss the potential risks with your doctor.

Taking hormone therapy after menopause

Women using estrogens after menopause have an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. The risk seems to be higher in women taking estrogen alone (without progesterone) for many years (at least 5 or 10). The increased risk is less certain for women taking both estrogen and progesterone.
Having a family history of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, or colorectal cancer

Ovarian cancer can run in families. Your ovarian cancer risk is increased if your mother, sister, or daughter has (or has had) ovarian cancer. The risk also gets higher the more relatives you have with ovarian cancer. Increased risk for ovarian cancer can also come from your father’s side.

A family history of some other types of cancer such as colorectal and breast cancer is linked to an increased risk of ovarian cancer. This is because these cancers can be caused by an inherited mutation (change) in certain genes that cause a family cancer syndrome that increases the risk of ovarian cancer.

Having a family cancer syndrome

About 5 to 10% of ovarian cancers are a part of family cancer syndromes resulting from inherited changes (mutations) in certain genes.

Hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome

This syndrome is caused by inherited mutations in the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2, as well as possibly some other genes that have not yet been found. This syndrome is linked to a high risk of breast cancer as well as ovarian, fallopian tube, and primary peritoneal cancers. The risk of some other cancers, such as pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer, are also increased.

Mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 are also responsible for most inherited ovarian cancers. Mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 are about 10 times more common in those who are Ashkenazi Jewish than those in the general U.S. population.

The lifetime ovarian cancer risk for women with a BRCA1 mutation is estimated to be between 35% and 70%. This means that if 100 women had a BRCA1 mutation, between 35 and 70 of them would get ovarian cancer. For women with BRCA2 mutations the risk has been estimated to be between 10% and 30% by age 70. These mutations also increase the risks for primary peritoneal carcinoma and fallopian tube carcinoma.

In comparison, the ovarian cancer lifetime risk for the women in the general population is less than 2%.

PTEN tumor hamartoma syndrome

In this syndrome, also known as Cowden disease, people are primarily affected with thyroid problems, thyroid cancer, and breast cancer. Women also have an increased risk of endometrial and ovarian cancer. It is caused by inherited mutations in the PTEN gene.

Hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer

Women with this syndrome have a very high risk of colon cancer and also have an increased risk of developing cancer of the uterus (endometrial cancer) and ovarian cancer. Many different genes can cause this syndrome. They include MLH1, MLH3, MSH2, MSH6, TGFBR2, PMS1, and PMS2. The lifetime risk of ovarian cancer in women with hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (Lynch syndrome) is about 10%. Up to 1% of all ovarian epithelial cancers occur in women with hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (Lynch syndrome).

Peutz-Jeghers syndrome

People with this rare genetic syndrome develop polyps in the stomach and intestine while they are teenagers. They also have a high risk of cancer, particularly cancers of the digestive tract (esophagus, stomach, small intestine, colon). Women with this syndrome have an increased risk of ovarian cancer, including both epithelial ovarian cancer and a type of stromal tumor called sex cord tumor with annular tubules (SCTAT). This syndrome is caused by mutations in the gene STK11.

MUTYH-associated polyposis

People with this syndrome develop polyps in the colon and small intestine and have a high risk of colon cancer. They are also more likely to develop other cancers, including cancers of the ovary and bladder. This syndrome is caused by mutations in the gene MUTYH.

Having had breast cancer

If you have had breast cancer, you might also have an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. There are several reasons for this. Some of the reproductive risk factors for ovarian cancer may also affect breast cancer risk. The risk of ovarian cancer after breast cancer is highest in those women with a family history of breast cancer. A strong family history of breast cancer may be caused by an inherited mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes and hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome, which is linked to an increased risk of ovarian cancer.

Smoking and alcohol use

Smoking doesn’t increase the risk of ovarian cancer overall, but it is linked to an increased risk for the mucinous type.

Drinking alcohol is not linked to ovarian cancer risk.

Factors with unclear effects on ovarian cancer risk


Androgens, such as testosterone, are male hormones. There appears to be a link between certain androgens and specific types of ovarian cancer, but further studies of the role of androgens in ovarian cancer are needed.

Talcum powder

It has been suggested that talcum powder might cause cancer in the ovaries if the powder particles (applied to the genital area or on sanitary napkins, diaphragms, or condoms) were to travel through the vagina, uterus, and fallopian tubes to the ovary.

Many studies in women have looked at the possible link between talcum powder and cancer of the ovary. Findings have been mixed, with some studies reporting a slightly increased risk and some reporting no increase. Many case-control studies have found a small increase in risk. But these types of studies can be biased because they often rely on a person’s memory of talc use many years earlier. One prospective cohort study, which would not have the same type of potential bias, has not found an increased risk. A second found a modest increase in risk of one type of ovarian cancer.

For any individual woman, if there is an increased risk, the overall increase is likely to very be small. Still, talc is widely used in many products, so it is important to determine if the increased risk is real. Research in this area continues.


Some studies have shown a reduced rate of ovarian cancer in women who ate a diet high in vegetables or a low fat diet, but other studies disagree. The American Cancer Society recommends eating a variety of healthful foods, with an emphasis on plant sources. Eat at least 2 ½ cups of fruits and vegetables every day, as well as several servings of whole grain foods from plant sources such as breads, cereals, grain products, rice, pasta, or beans. Limit the amount of red meat and processed meats you eat. Even though the effect of these dietary recommendations on ovarian cancer risk remains uncertain, following them can help prevent several other diseases, including some other types of cancer.

Factors that can lower risk of ovarian cancer

Pregnancy and breastfeeding

Women who have been pregnant and carried it to term before age 26 have a lower risk of ovarian cancer than women who have not. The risk goes down with each full-term pregnancy. Breastfeeding may lower the risk even further.

Birth control

Women who have used oral contraceptives (also known as birth control pills or the pill) have a lower risk of ovarian cancer. The risk is lower the longer the pills are used. This lower risk continues for many years after the pill is stopped. Other forms of birth control such as tubal ligation (having fallopian tubes tied) and short use of IUDs (intrauterine devices) have also been associated with a lower risk of ovarian cancer.

A hysterectomy (removing the uterus without removing the ovaries) also seems to reduce the risk of getting ovarian cancer by about one-third.

Ovarian cancer prevention

Most women have one or more risk factors for ovarian cancer. But most of the common factors only slightly increase your risk, so they only partly explain the frequency of the disease. So far, what is known about risk factors has not translated into practical ways to prevent most cases of ovarian cancer.

There are several ways you can reduce your risk of developing the most common type of ovarian cancer, epithelial ovarian cancer. Much less is known about ways to lower the risk of developing germ cell and stromal tumors of the ovaries, so this information does not apply to those types. It is important to realize that some of these strategies lower your risk only slightly, while others lower it much more. Some strategies are easily followed, and others require surgery. If you are concerned about your risk of ovarian cancer, talk to your health care professionals. They can help you consider these ideas as they apply to your own situation.

Avoiding certain risk factors

Some risk factors for ovarian cancer, like getting older or having a family history, cannot be changed. But women might be able to lower their risk slightly by avoiding other risk factors, for example, by staying at a healthy weight, or not taking hormone replacement therapy after menopause.

Oral contraceptives

Using oral contraceptives (birth control pills) decreases the risk of developing ovarian cancer for average risk women and BRCA mutation carriers , especially among women who use them for several years. Women who used oral contraceptives for 5 or more years have about a 50% lower risk of developing ovarian cancer compared with women who never used oral contraceptives. Still, birth control pills do have some serious risks and side effects such as slightly increasing breast cancer risk. Women considering taking these drugs for any reason should first discuss the possible risks and benefits with their doctor.

Gynecologic surgery

Both tubal ligation and hysterectomy may reduce the chance of developing certain types of ovarian cancer, but experts agree that these operations should only be done for valid medical reasons — not for their effect on ovarian cancer risk.

If you are going to have a hysterectomy for a valid medical reason and you have a strong family history of ovarian or breast cancer, you may want to consider having both ovaries and fallopian tubes removed (called a bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy) as part of that procedure.

Even if you don’t have an increased risk of ovarian cancer, some doctors recommend that the ovaries be removed with the uterus if a woman has already gone through menopause or is close to menopause. If you are older than 40 and you are going to have a hysterectomy, you should discuss the potential risks and benefits of having your ovaries removed with your doctor.

Another option for average risk women who do not wish to have their ovaries removed because they don’t want to lose ovarian function (and go through menopause early) is to have just the fallopian tubes removed (a bilateral salpingectomy) along with the uterus (a hysterectomy). They may choose to have their ovaries removed later. This has not been studied as well as removing both the ovaries and fallopian tubes at the same time, but there is enough information that it may be considered an option to reduce ovarian cancer risk in average risk women.

Prevention strategies for women with a family history of ovarian cancer or BRCA mutation

If your family history suggests that you (or a close relative) might have a syndrome linked with a high risk of ovarian cancer, you might want to consider genetic counseling and testing. During genetic counseling (by a genetic counselor or other health care professional with training in genetic risk evaluation), your personal medical and family history is reviewed. This can help predict whether you are likely to have one of the gene mutations associated with an increased ovarian cancer risk.

The counselor will also discuss the benefits and potential drawbacks of genetic testing with you. Genetic testing can help determine if you or members of your family carry certain gene mutations that cause a high risk of ovarian cancer. Still, the results are not always clear, and a genetic counselor can help you sort out what the results mean to you.

For some women with a strong family history of ovarian cancer, knowing they do not have a mutation that increases their ovarian cancer risk can be a great relief for them and their children. Knowing that you do have such a mutation can be stressful, but many women find this information very helpful in making important decisions about certain prevention strategies for them and their children.

Using oral contraceptives is one way that high risk women (women with BRCA1 and BRCA2 muations) can reduce their risk of developing ovarian cancer. But birth control pills can increase breast cancer risk in women with or without these mutations. This increased risk appears highest while women are actively taking birth control pills but can continue even after stopping them. Research is continuing to find out more about the risks and benefits of oral contraceptives for women at high ovarian and breast cancer risk.

Tubal ligation may also effectively reduce the risk of ovarian cancer in women who have BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations. Usually this type of surgery is not done alone and is typically done for reasons other than ovarian cancer prevention.

Sometimes a woman may want to consider having both ovaries and fallopian tubes removed (called a bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy) to reduce her risk of ovarian cancer before cancer is even suspected. If the ovaries are removed to prevent ovarian cancer, the surgery is called risk-reducing or prophylactic. Generally, salpingo-oophorectomy may be recommended for high-risk women after they have finished having children. This operation lowers ovarian cancer risk a great deal but does not entirely eliminate it. That’s because some women who have a high risk of ovarian cancer already have a cancer at the time of surgery. These cancers can be so small that they are only found when the ovaries and fallopian tubes are looked at in the lab after they are removed. Also, women with BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations have an increased risk of primary peritoneal carcinoma. Although the risk is low, this cancer can still develop after the ovaries and fallopian tubes are removed.

The risk of fallopian tube cancer is also increased in women with mutations in BRCA1 or BRCA2. Sometimes early fallopian tube cancers are found unexpectedly when the fallopian tubes are removed as a part of a risk-reducing surgery. In fact, some cancers that were thought to be ovarian or primary peritoneal cancers may have actually started in the fallopian tubes. That is why experts recommend that women at high risk of ovarian cancer who are having their ovaries removed should have their fallopian tubes completely removed as well (salpingo-oophorectomy).

Research has shown that premenopausal women who have BRCA gene mutations and have had their ovaries removed reduce their risk of breast cancer as well as their risk of ovarian cancer. The risk of ovarian cancer is reduced by 85% to 95%, and the risk of breast cancer cut by 50% or more.

Some women who have a high risk of ovarian cancer due to BRCA gene mutations feel that having their ovaries and fallopian tubes removed is not right for them. Often doctors recommend that those women have screening tests to try to find ovarian cancer early.

Ovarian cancer diagnosis

If your doctor finds something suspicious during a pelvic exam, or if you have symptoms that might be due to ovarian cancer, your doctor, will recommend exams and tests to find the cause.

Medical history and physical exam

Your doctor will ask about your medical history to learn about possible risk factors, including your family history. You will also be asked if you’re having any symptoms, when they started, and how long you’ve had them. Your doctor will likely do a pelvic exam to check for an enlarged ovary or signs of fluid in the abdomen (which is called ascites). During a pelvic exam, your doctor inserts gloved fingers into your vagina and simultaneously presses a hand on your abdomen in order to feel (palpate) your pelvic organs. The doctor also visually examines your external genitalia, vagina and cervix.

If there is reason to suspect you have ovarian cancer based on your symptoms and/or physical exam, your doctor will order some tests to check further.


Sometimes your doctor can’t be certain of your diagnosis until you undergo surgery to remove an ovary and have it tested for signs of cancer.

Consultation with a specialist

If the results of your pelvic exam or other tests suggest that you have ovarian cancer, you will need a doctor or surgeon who specializes in treating women with this type of cancer. A gynecologic oncologist is an obstetrician/gynecologist who is specially trained in treating cancers of the female reproductive system. Treatment by a gynecologic oncologist helps ensure that you get the best kind of surgery for your cancer. It has also has been shown to help patients with ovarian cancer live longer. Anyone suspected of having ovarian cancer should see this type of specialist before having surgery.

Ovarian cancer tests

Imaging tests

Doctors use imaging tests to take pictures of the inside of your body. Imaging tests can show whether a pelvic mass is present, but they cannot confirm that the mass is a cancer. These tests are also useful if your doctor is looking to see if ovarian cancer has spread (metastasized) to other tissues and organs.


Ultrasound (ultrasonography) uses sound waves to create an image on a video screen. Sound waves are released from a small probe placed in the woman’s vagina and a small microphone-like instrument called a transducer gives off sound waves and picks up the echoes as they bounce off organs. A computer turns these echoes into an image on the screen.

Ultrasound is often the first test done if a problem with the ovaries is suspected. It can be used to find an ovarian tumor and to check if it is a solid mass (tumor) or a fluid-filled cyst. It can also be used to get a better look at the ovary to see how big it is and how it looks inside. This helps the doctor decide which masses or cysts are more worrisome.

Computed tomography (CT) scans

The CT scan is an x-ray test that makes detailed cross-sectional images of your body. The test can help tell if ovarian cancer has spread to other organs.

CT scans do not show small ovarian tumors well, but they can see larger tumors, and may be able to see if the tumor is growing into nearby structures. A CT scan may also find enlarged lymph nodes, signs of cancer spread to liver or other organs, or signs that an ovarian tumor is affecting your kidneys or bladder.

CT scans are not usually used to biopsy an ovarian tumor (see biopsy in the section “Other tests”), but they can be used to biopsy a suspected metastasis (area of spread). For this procedure, called a CT-guided needle biopsy, the patient stays on the CT scanning table, while a radiologist moves a biopsy needle toward the mass. CT scans are repeated until the doctors are confident that the needle is in the mass. A fine needle biopsy sample (tiny fragment of tissue) or a core needle biopsy sample (a thin cylinder of tissue about ½ inch long and less than 1/8 inch in diameter) is removed and examined in the lab.

Barium enema x-ray

A barium enema is a test to see if the cancer has invaded the colon (large intestine) or rectum. This test is rarely used for women with ovarian cancer. Colonoscopy may be done instead.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans

MRI scans also create cross-section pictures of your insides. But MRI uses strong magnets to make the images – not x-rays. A contrast material called gadolinium may be injected into a vein before the scan to see details better.

MRI scans are not used often to look for ovarian cancer, but they are particularly helpful to examine the brain and spinal cord where cancer could spread.

Chest x-ray

An x-ray might be done to determine whether ovarian cancer has spread (metastasized) to the lungs. This spread may cause one or more tumors in the lungs and more often causes fluid to collect around the lungs. This fluid, called a pleural effusion, can be seen with chest x-rays as well as other types of scans.

Positron emission tomography (PET) scan

For a PET scan, radioactive glucose (sugar) is given to look for the cancer. PET scans can help find cancer when it has spread, but are not used often to look for ovarian cancer. Body cells take in different amounts of the sugar, depending on how fast they are growing. Cancer cells, which grow quickly, are more likely to take up larger amounts of the sugar than normal cells. A special camera is used to create a picture of areas of radioactivity in the body.

The picture from a PET scan is not as detailed as a CT or MRI scan, but it provides helpful information about whether abnormal areas seen on these other tests are likely to be cancer or not.

If you have already been diagnosed with cancer, your doctor may use this test to see if the cancer has spread to lymph nodes or other parts of the body. A PET scan can also be useful if your doctor thinks the cancer may have spread but doesn’t know where.

PET/CT scan: Some machines can do both a PET and CT scan at the same time. This lets the doctor compare areas of higher radioactivity on the PET scan with the more detailed picture of that area on the CT scan.

Other tests


This procedure uses a thin, lighted tube through which a doctor can look at the ovaries and other pelvic organs and tissues in the area. The tube is inserted through a small incision (cut) in the lower abdomen and sends the images of the pelvis or abdomen to a video monitor. Laparoscopy provides a view of organs that can help plan surgery or other treatments and can help doctors confirm the stage (how far the tumor has spread) of the cancer. Also, doctors can manipulate small instruments through the laparoscopic incision(s) to perform biopsies.


A colonoscopy is a way to examine the inside of the large intestine (colon). The doctor looks at the entire length of the colon and rectum with a colonoscope, a thin, flexible, lighted tube with a small video camera on the end. It is inserted through the anus and into the rectum and the colon. Any abnormal areas seen can by biopsied. This procedure is more commonly used to look for colorectal cancer.


The only way to determine for certain if a growth is cancer is to remove a piece of it and examine it in the lab. This procedure is called a biopsy. For ovarian cancer, the biopsy is most commonly done by removing the tumor during surgery.

In rare cases, a suspected ovarian cancer may be biopsied during a laparoscopy procedure or with a needle placed directly into the tumor through the skin of the abdomen. Usually the needle will be guided by either ultrasound or CT scan. This is only done if you cannot have surgery because of advanced cancer or some other serious medical condition, because there is concern that a biopsy could spread the cancer.

If you have ascites (fluid buildup inside the abdomen), samples of the fluid can also be used to diagnose the cancer. In this procedure, called paracentesis, the skin of the abdomen is numbed and a needle attached to a syringe is passed through the abdominal wall into the fluid in the abdominal cavity. Ultrasound may be used to guide the needle. The fluid is taken up into the syringe and then sent for analysis to see if it contains cancer cells.

In all these procedures, the tissue or fluid obtained is sent to the lab. There it is examined by a pathologist, a doctor who specialize in diagnosing and classifying diseases by examining cells under a microscope and using other lab tests.

Blood tests

Your doctor will order blood count tests to make sure you have enough red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets (cells that help stop bleeding). There will also be tests to measure your kidney and liver function as well as your general health. The doctor will also order a CA-125 test. Women who have a high CA-125 level are often referred to a gynecologic oncologist, but any woman with suspected ovarian cancer should see a gynecologic oncologist, as well.

Some germ cell cancers can cause elevated blood levels of the tumor markers human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG), alpha-fetoprotein (AFP), and/or lactate dehydrogenase (LDH). These may be checked if your doctor suspects that your ovarian tumor could be a germ cell tumor.

Some ovarian stromal tumors cause the blood levels of a substance called inhibin and hormones such as estrogen and testosterone to go up. These levels may be checked if your doctor suspects that you have this type of tumor.

Genetic counseling and testing if you have ovarian cancer

If you have been diagnosed with an epithelial ovarian cancer, your doctor will likely recommend that you get genetic counseling to help you decide if you should be tested for certain inherited gene changes, such as a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. Some ovarian cancers are linked to mutations in these or other genes.

Genetic testing to look for inherited mutations can be helpful in several ways:

  • If you are found to have a gene mutation, you might be more likely to get other types of cancer as well, so you might benefit from doing what you can to lower your risk of these cancers, as well as having tests to find them early.
  • If you have a gene mutation, your family members (blood relatives) might also have it, so they can decide if they want to be tested to learn more about their cancer risk.
  • If you have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, at some point you might benefit from treatment with targeted drugs called PARP inhibitors.

You may have heard about some home-based genetic tests. There is a concern that these tests are promoted by companies without giving full information. For example, a test for a small number of BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations has been approved by the FDA. However, there are more than 1,000 known BRCA mutations, and the ones included in the approved test are not the most common ones. This means there are many BRCA mutations that would not be detected by this test.

A genetic counselor or other qualified medical professional can help you understand the pros, cons, and possible limits of what genetic testing can tell you. This can help you decide if testing is right for you, and which testing is best.

Ovarian cancer stages

After a woman is diagnosed with ovarian cancer, doctors will try to figure out if it has spread, and if so, how far. This process is called staging. The stage of a cancer describes how much cancer is in the body. It helps determine how serious the cancer is and how best to treat it. Doctors also use a cancer’s stage when talking about survival statistics.

Ovarian cancer stages range from stage I (1) through IV (4). As a rule, the lower the number, the less the cancer has spread. A higher number, such as stage IV (4), means cancer has spread to distant areas of the body. Although each person’s cancer experience is unique, cancers with similar stages tend to have a similar outlook and are often treated in much the same way.

One of the goals of surgery for ovarian cancer is to take tissue samples for diagnosis and staging. To stage the cancer, samples of tissues are taken from different parts of the pelvis and abdomen and examined in the lab.

How is ovarian cancer stage determined?

The 2 systems used for staging ovarian cancer, the FIGO (International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics) system and the AJCC (American Joint Committee on Cancer) TNM staging system are basically the same.

They both use 3 factors to stage (classify) this cancer :

  1. The extent (size) of the tumor (T): Has the cancer spread outside the ovary or fallopian tube? Has the cancer reached nearby pelvic organs like the uterus or bladder?
  2. The spread to nearby lymph nodes (N): Has the cancer spread to the lymph nodes in the pelvis or around the aorta (the main artery that runs from the heart down along the back of the abdomen and pelvis)? Also called para-aortic lymph nodes.
  3. The spread (metastasis) to distant sites (M): Has the cancer spread to fluid around the lungs (malignant pleural effusion) or to distant organs such as the liver or bones?

Numbers or letters after T, N, and M provide more details about each of these factors. Higher numbers mean the cancer is more advanced. Once a person’s T, N, and M categories have been determined, this information is combined in a process called stage grouping to assign an overall stage.

The staging system in the table below uses the pathologic stage (also called the surgical stage). It is determined by examining tissue removed during an operation. This is also known as surgical staging. Sometimes, if surgery is not possible right away, the cancer will be given a clinical stage instead. This is based on the results of a physical exam, biopsy, and imaging tests done before surgery.

The system described below is the most recent American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) system effective January 2018. It is the staging system for ovarian cancer, fallopian tube cancer, and primary peritoneal cancer.

Cancer staging can be complex, so ask your doctor to explain it to you in a way you understand.

Table 1. Ovarian cancer stages

AJCC StageStage groupingFIGO StageStage description*



IThe cancer is only in the ovary (or ovaries) or fallopian tube(s) (T1).

It has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).




IAThe cancer is in one ovary, and the tumor is confined to the inside of the ovary; or the cancer is in in one fallopian tube, and is only inside the fallopian tube. There is no cancer on the outer surfaces of the ovary or fallopian tube. No cancer cells are found in the fluid (ascites) or washings from the abdomen and pelvis (T1a).

It has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).





IBThe cancer is in both ovaries or fallopian tubes but not on their outer surfaces. No cancer cells are found in the fluid (ascites) or washings from the abdomen and pelvis (T1b). It has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).



ICThe cancer is in one or both ovaries or fallopian tubes and any of the following are present:

  • The tissue (capsule) surrounding the tumor broke during surgery, which could allow cancer cells to leak into the abdomen and pelvis (called surgical spill). This is stage IC1.
  • Cancer is on the outer surface of at least one of the ovaries or fallopian tubes or the capsule (tissue surrounding the tumor) has ruptured (burst) before surgery (which could allow cancer cells to spill into the abdomen and pelvis). This is stage IC2.
  • Cancer cells are found in the fluid (ascites) or washings from the abdomen and pelvis. This is stage IC3.

It has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).






IIThe cancer is in one or both ovaries or fallopian tubes and has spread to other organs (such as the uterus, bladder, the sigmoid colon, or the rectum) within the pelvis or there is primary peritoneal cancer (T2). It has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).



IIAThe cancer has spread to or has invaded (grown into) the uterus or the fallopian tubes, or the ovaries. (T2a). It has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).



IIBThe cancer is on the outer surface of or has grown into other nearby pelvic organs such as the bladder, the sigmoid colon, or the rectum (T2b). It has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).
IIIA1T1 or T2



IIIA1The cancer is in one or both ovaries or fallopian tubes, or there is primary peritoneal cancer (T1) and it may have spread or grown into nearby organs in the pelvis (T2). It has spread to the retroperitoneal (pelvic and/or para-aortic) lymph nodes only. It has not spread to distant sites (M0).

N0 or N1


IIIA2The cancer is in one or both ovaries or fallopian tubes, or there is primary peritoneal cancer and it has spread or grown into organs outside the pelvis. During surgery, no cancer is visible in the abdomen (outside of the pelvis) to the naked eye, but tiny deposits of cancer are found in the lining of the abdomen when it is examined in the lab (T3a).

The cancer might or might not have spread to retroperitoneal lymph nodes (N0 or N1), but it has not spread to distant sites (M0).


N0 or N1


IIIBThere is cancer in one or both ovaries or fallopian tubes, or there is primary peritoneal cancer and it has spread or grown into organs outside the pelvis. The deposits of cancer are large enough for the surgeon to see, but are no bigger than 2 cm (about 3/4 inch) across. (T3b).

It may or may not have spread to the retroperitoneal lymph nodes (N0 or N1), but it has not spread to the inside of the liver or spleen or to distant sites (M0).


N0 or N1


IIICThe cancer is in one or both ovaries or fallopian tubes, or there is primary peritoneal cancer and it has spread or grown into organs outside the pelvis. The deposits of cancer are larger than 2 cm (about 3/4 inch) across and may be on the outside (the capsule) of the liver or spleen (T3c).

It may or may not have spread to the retroperitoneal lymph nodes (N0 or N1), but it has not spread to the inside of the liver or spleen or to distant sites (M0).


Any N


IVACancer cells are found in the fluid around the lungs (called a malignant pleural effusion) with no other areas of cancer spread such as the liver, spleen, intestine, or lymph nodes outside the abdomen (M1a).

Any N


IVBThe cancer has spread to the inside of the spleen or liver, to lymph nodes other than the retroperitoneal lymph nodes, and/or to other organs or tissues outside the peritoneal cavity such as the lungs and bones (M1b).


* The following additional categories are not described in the table above:

TX: Main tumor cannot be assessed due to lack of information
T0: No evidence of a primary tumor.
NX: Regional lymph nodes cannot be assessed due to lack of information.

[Source 2 ]

Ovarian cancer survival rate

Survival rates tell you what percentage of people with the same type and stage of cancer are still alive a certain length of time (usually 5 years) after they were diagnosed. These numbers can’t tell you how long you will live, but they may help give you a better understanding about how likely it is that your treatment will be successful.

Remember, survival rates are estimates – your outlook can vary based on a number of factors specific to you.

Survival rates are often based on previous outcomes of large numbers of people who had the disease, but they can’t predict what will happen in any particular person’s case. There are a number of limitations to remember:

  • The numbers below are among the most current available. But to get 5-year survival rates, doctors look at people who were treated at least 5 years ago. As treatments are improving over time, people who are now being diagnosed with ovarian cancer may have a better outlook than these statistics show.
  • These statistics are based on the stage of the cancer when it was first diagnosed. They do not apply to cancers that come back later or spread, for example.
  • Besides the cancer stage, many other factors can affect a person’s outlook, such as age and overall health, and how well the cancer responds to treatment.

Your doctor can tell you how these numbers may apply to you, as he or she is familiar with the aspects of your particular situation.

For all types of ovarian cancer, the 5-year relative survival is 47%. Women diagnosed when they are younger than 65 do better than older women. If ovarian cancer is found (and treated) before the cancer has spread outside the ovary (stages IA and IB), the 5-year relative survival rate is 92%. However, only 15% of all ovarian cancers are found at this early stage.

The survival rates given below are for the different types of ovarian cancer. They come from the National Cancer Institute, SEER Data Base and are based on patients diagnosed from 2007 to 2013. These numbers are based on a previous version of the staging system (6th edition of the American Joint Committee on Cancer), which had different stages.

Table 2. Invasive epithelial ovarian cancer survival rate

StageRelative 5-Year Survival Rate

Table 3. Ovarian stromal tumors survival rate

StageRelative 5-yr Survival Rate

Table 4. Germ cell tumors of the ovary survival rate

StageRelative 5-yr Survival Rate

Table 5. Fallopian tube carcinoma survival rate

StageRelative 5-yr Survival Rate

Ovarian cancer treatment

Treatment of ovarian cancer usually involves a combination of surgery and chemotherapy. Less often, treatment may include radiotherapy.

The type of treatment women receive depends on the type and stage of their ovarian cancer and their general health.

Treatment is usually managed by a gynecological oncologist as they specialize in treating cancers of the reproductive tract and have very specialized surgical skills.

Ideally, they will be part of a multidisciplinary health care team – where each member of the team specializes in a different area of care and that care is co-ordinated between each member.


Operations to remove ovarian cancer include:

  • Surgery to remove one ovary. For very early stage cancer that hasn’t spread beyond one ovary, surgery may involve removing the affected ovary and its fallopian tube. This procedure may preserve your ability to have children.
  • Surgery to remove both ovaries. If cancer is present in both your ovaries, but there are no signs of additional cancer, your surgeon may remove both ovaries and both fallopian tubes. This procedure leaves your uterus intact, so you may still be able to become pregnant using your own frozen embryos or eggs or with eggs from a donor.
  • Surgery to remove both ovaries and the uterus. If your cancer is more extensive or if you don’t wish to preserve your ability to have children, your surgeon will remove the ovaries, the fallopian tubes, the uterus, nearby lymph nodes and a fold of fatty abdominal tissue (omentum).
  • Surgery for advanced cancer. If your cancer is advanced, your doctor may recommend chemotherapy followed by surgery to remove as much of the cancer as possible.

The first treatment for ovarian cancer is usually an operation called a ‘laparotomy’. This operation is also the main way that a diagnosis of ovarian cancer is confirmed.

During a laparotomy, a long vertical cut is made in your abdomen, which allows the surgeon to find and remove as much of the tumor as possible. In many cases, the surgeon will do a biopsy of the tumor at the beginning of the operation to confirm that it is cancer. This is called a ‘frozen section’. If the frozen section confirms that the tumour is cancer, the operation will continue.

For most women, the operation will involve removal of the ovaries, fallopian tubes, the uterus, the omentum (the fat pad around the organs in your abdomen), the appendix and some of the lymph glands in the area. Sometimes it may be necessary to remove some of the bowel.

After your operation, samples of the tissue removed are sent to a laboratory for further examination. The results of these biopsies will provide more information about the type and extent of your cancer and enables the gynecological oncologist to make decisions about further treatment.

If you were still having menstrual periods before you were diagnosed with ovarian cancer and you have both your ovaries removed, this surgery will result in menopause and can affect your ability to have children. As well as learning that you have ovarian cancer, this surgically-induced menopause and infertility creates all kinds of extra challenges to live with. It’s important for women who have not yet completed their family to speak to a doctor about these issues before surgery.


Chemotherapy is a drug treatment that uses chemicals to kill fast-growing cells in the body, including cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs can be injected into a vein or taken by mouth. Sometimes the drugs are injected directly into the abdomen (intraperitoneal chemotherapy).

Chemotherapy is often used after surgery to kill any cancer cells that might remain. It can also be used before surgery.

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy uses medications that target the specific vulnerabilities present within your cancer cells. Targeted therapy drugs are usually reserved for treating ovarian cancer that returns after initial treatment or cancer that resists other treatments. Your doctor may test your cancer cells to determine which targeted therapy is most likely to have an effect on your cancer.

Targeted therapy is an active area of cancer research. Many clinical trials are testing new targeted therapies.


Radiotherapy is occasionally used as a treatment option for ovarian cancer. Radiotherapy may be used where cancer is confined to the pelvic cavity. It may also be used in advanced ovarian cancer to reduce the size of the cancer and help to relieve symptoms. Radiotherapy is treatment with special X-rays that are aimed at the specific site of the cancer. The X-ray damages the DNA or genetic code in the cancer cells and this damage kills the cancer cells when they try to grow. Treatment can be external or internal and is given daily over a number of weeks.

Supportive (palliative) care

Palliative care is specialized medical care that focuses on providing relief from pain and other symptoms of a serious illness. Palliative care specialists work with you, your family and your other doctors to provide an extra layer of support that complements your ongoing care. Palliative care can be used while undergoing other aggressive treatments, such as surgery and chemotherapy.

When palliative care is used along with all of the other appropriate treatments, people with cancer may feel better and live longer.

Palliative care is provided by a team of doctors, nurses and other specially trained professionals. Palliative care teams aim to improve the quality of life for people with cancer and their families. This form of care is offered alongside curative or other treatments you may be receiving.

Ovarian cancer treatment and fertility

Treatment for ovarian cancer can affect a woman’s ability to have children. If a woman who has not yet gone through menopause has both ovaries removed, she will no longer be able to have children naturally after treatment. If surgery involves removing the uterus, the woman will no longer be able to have children at all.

If ovarian cancer has not spread or if it’s found to be a borderline tumor (a type of less aggressive ovarian cancer), it may be possible to just remove only the affected ovary, leaving the other ovary and the uterus. This means that a woman may still fall pregnant after surgery.

Some women need chemotherapy following surgery. When an ovary remains after surgery, having chemotherapy can mean that a woman goes through menopause early. Women who have gone through menopause are no longer able to become pregnant.

Women who were planning to have children before their ovarian cancer diagnosis should speak to their oncologist before starting treatment for ovarian cancer. It may be possible to see a fertility specialist to discuss the available options.

Coping and support

A diagnosis of ovarian cancer can be overwhelming and scary. In time you’ll find ways to cope with your feelings, but in the meantime you might find it helpful to:

  • Find someone to talk with. You may feel comfortable discussing your feelings with a friend or family member, or you might prefer meeting with a formal support group. Support groups for the families of cancer survivors also are available.
  • Let people help. Cancer treatments can be exhausting. Let people know what would be most useful for you.
  • Set reasonable goals. Having goals helps you feel in control and can give you a sense of purpose. But choose goals that you can reach.
  • Take time for yourself. Eating well, relaxing and getting enough rest can help combat the stress and fatigue of cancer.

Complementary therapies

Many women with ovarian cancer are interested in trying complementary therapies – natural therapies that may be used to help manage symptoms and side effects, reduce pain, relieve stress and encourage a feeling of wellbeing. Let your doctor know if you are considering natural therapies to ensure they are compatible with the treatment you are receiving. Your cancer care team can also help you learn what is known (or not known) about the method you are thinking about using, which can help you make an informed decision.

  1. American Cancer Society Cancer Statistics Center. https://cancerstatisticscenter.cancer.org/#!/[]
  2. Ovarian Cancer Stages. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/ovarian-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/staging.html[]
Health Jade