Cancer is a disease in which cells in the body grow out of control.
Cancer is always named for the part of the body where it starts, even if it spreads to other body parts later.
When cancer starts in the ovaries, it is called ovarian cancer. Women have two ovaries that are located in the pelvis, one on each side of the uterus. The ovaries make female hormones and produce eggs.
The ovaries are the part of the female reproductive system that produce eggs every month during a woman’s reproductive years. They are located on either side of the lower abdomen. Ovarian cancer occurs when cells in the ovary grow and divide uncontrollably. The cells may form a tumor on the ovary, or they also can break off from the main tumor and spread to other parts of the body. Although ovarian cancer can spread throughout the entire body, in most cases it stays in the abdomen and affects organs such as the intestines, liver and stomach. There are several types of ovarian cancer. However, most cancers of the ovary come from the cells that make up the outer lining of the ovary.
How common is ovarian cancer?
A woman’s risk of getting ovarian cancer during her lifetime is about one in 67. The risk of getting this cancer and dying from it is one in 95. Ovarian cancer is the eighth most common cancer in women, excluding skin cancer. It is the fifth leading cause of cancer death in women.
When ovarian cancer is found in its early stages, treatment is most effective.
There is no way to know for sure if you will get ovarian cancer. Most women get it without being at high risk.
However, there are several factors that may increase the chance that you will get ovarian cancer, including if you:
• Are middle-aged or older.
• Have close family members (such as your mother, sister, aunt, or grandmother) on either your mother’s or your father’s side who have had ovarian cancer.
• Have had breast, uterine, or colorectal cancer.
• Have an Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jewish background.
• Have never given birth or have had trouble getting pregnant.
• Have endometriosis (a condition where tissue from the lining of the uterus grows elsewhere in the body).
If you have one or more of these factors, it does not mean you will get ovarian cancer. But you should speak with your doctor about your risk.
How is ovarian cancer diagnosed?
Many times women with ovarian cancer have no symptoms or just mild symptoms until the disease is in an advanced stage. Ovarian cancer is difficult to diagnose and is often diagnosed after the disease is advanced. Some diagnostic exams and tests that may be useful are:
Pelvic exam - includes feeling the uterus, vagina, ovaries, fallopian tubes, bladder and rectum to find any abnormality in their shape or size.
Ultrasound - uses high-frequency sound waves. These waves are aimed at the ovaries and produce a pattern of echoes to create a picture (sonogram). Healthy tissues, fluid-filled cysts and tumors look different on this picture.
CA-125 assay - a blood test used to measure the level of CA-125, a tumor marker that is often found in higher-than-normal amounts in the blood of women with ovarian cancer as well as other cancers.
Lower Gastrointestinal series or barium enema - a series of X-rays of the colon and rectum. The pictures are taken after the patient is given an enema with a white, chalky solution containing barium. The barium outlines the colon and rectum making tumors or other abnormal areas easier to see.
Computerized Axial Tomography (CAT) scan - a series of detailed pictures of the organs inside the body created by a computer linked to an X-ray machine.
Biopsy - the removal of tissue for examination under a microscope. A definitive diagnosis of ovarian cancer requires surgery. The initial surgery has two purposes. First, to remove any cancer that exists (or as much as possible), including removing the ovaries and the uterus; and second, to sample tissues and surrounding lymph nodes to determine where the tumor has spread and the stage of the disease. The best prognosis for survival occur when all the cancer can be removed.
CDC Publication #99-9124, Revised March 2009