Ovarian Cancer: The Basics

Author: Marisa Healy, BSN, RN
Last Reviewed:

Ovarian cancer is caused by cells in the ovary growing out of control. As the number of cells grows, they form a tumor. Ovarian cancer that has spread from the ovary to another part of the body is called metastatic cancer.

Risks

Reasons for getting ovarian cancer may be:

  • Older age.
  • If other women in your family have had ovarian cancer.
  • Genetic changes such as BRCA1, BRCA2, HNPCC, MEN 1, Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, and Gorlin syndrome.
  • Having your first period at an early age.
  • Having more periods and ovulations, which are caused by a woman’s periods stopping later.
  • Never being pregnant.
  • Having children after age 30.
  • Never having used birth control pills.
  • Never breastfeeding.

Screening

There are no routine tests for ovarian cancer. There are a few tests that are being studied in women at high risk of getting ovarian cancer because of genetic changes.

Signs and Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer

Warnings signs of ovarian cancer are often ignored by the patient or the healthcare provider because they can be vague. Warning signs may be:

  • Feeling swollen.
  • Pelvic or stomach pain.
  • Problems eating or feeling full quickly.
  • Needing to use the bathroom more often or the feeling of needing to go happens quicker than normal.

While these warnings are more often due to other health problems, women who have these should tell their healthcare provider, especially if they last for a long time.

Diagnosis of Ovarian Cancer

When your healthcare provider suspects ovarian cancer, they will order further tests like a pelvic exam, blood tests, transvaginal ultrasound, and surgery. Surgery is the only way to truly diagnose and stage ovarian cancer.

Staging

To plan treatment, each woman’s ovarian cancer is given a stage and grade. The stage of the cancer is from 1-4, with 1 being the smallest size of tumor, and 4 being the largest size of tumor that has also spread to other places in the body. The stage is based on:

  • Size and place of the growth.
  • Whether cancer cells are found in the lymph nodes.
  • Whether cancer cells are found in other places of the body.

“Grade” means how different the cells look under a microscope. Grade 1 tumors look the most normal, while grades 3 and 4 appear less normal and may be more aggressive.

Treatment

Ovarian cancer treatment almost always uses surgery to find, stage, and remove as much cancer as the provider can. The type of surgery will depend on the stage of the cancer and if the woman would like to be able to have children in the future. Surgery may also be done to ease problems from the cancer in its later stages.

Other treatments might be:

  • Radiation may be used after surgery to kill cancer cells or to keep cancer from coming back. In later disease, it may be used to help symptoms.
  • Chemotherapy may be used after surgery to kill cancer cells and stop the cancer from coming back (called recurrence).

This article is a basic guide to ovarian cancer. You can learn more about ovarian cancer and treatment by using the links below.

All about Ovarian Cancer

Treatment Options for Ovarian Cancer

Support and Resources for Ovarian Cancer

References

American Cancer Society. Ovarian Cancer. 2021. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/ovarian-cancer/about/key-statistics.html

Berliner, J. L., Fay, A. M., Cummings, S. A., Burnett, B., & Tillmanns, T. (2013). NSGC practice guideline: risk assessment and genetic counseling for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. Journal of Genetic Counseling, 22(2), 155-163. 

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