About one in 75 women are estimated to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in their lifetimes, and ovarian cancer is the fifth-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women. The American Cancer Society estimates that there were more than 22,200 women between ages 35 and 74 diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2016.
The basics of ovarian cancer
Ovaries are reproductive glands that produce eggs. Ovaries are also the source of estrogen and progesterone, both female hormones. A woman has two ovaries, one on each side of the uterus in the pelvis. When cancer starts in the ovaries, it is called ovarian cancer.
Ovarian cancer risk factors
Some women can be at a higher risk for developing ovarian cancer, including those with a personal or family history of breast, ovarian or colon cancer. Genetic abnormalities such as BRCA1 or BRCA2 increase a woman’s risk for developing both ovarian cancer, as well as breast cancer.
The risk of ovarian cancer increases with age. Other risk factors include infertility, endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease and Lynch syndrome. Most women who develop ovarian cancer are not considered high risk for the cancer and do not have a family history of it.
If you think that you may be at a high risk for ovarian cancer, you should speak with your doctor about monitoring and screening recommendations.
Diagnosing ovarian cancer
When localized to the ovary, the five-year survival rate for ovarian cancer is 90 percent, but only one in five women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed in an early stage.
The two tests used most often to screen for ovarian cancer in high-risk women are transvaginal ultrasound (TVUS), a test that uses sound waves to look at a woman’s pelvic area, and the CA-125 blood assay, which tests for the CA-125 protein in the blood (women with ovarian cancer sometimes have high levels of this protein). It is important to remember, a Pap test does not detect ovarian cancer, only cervical cancer.
If you are suspected of having ovarian cancer, you will likely have:
- Physical and pelvic exam
- Imaging tests, including CT scan, ultrasound
- Consultation with a specialist (gynecologic oncologist)
- A biopsy of your tumor or abdominal fluid (ascites) will confirm an ovarian cancer diagnosis.
Unfortunately, ovarian cancer is hard to discover early because the symptoms are often subtle and similar to many other conditions affecting women who do not have cancer. The prognosis for survival from ovarian cancer depends largely on how advanced the disease is at the time of diagnosis.
Common symptoms for ovarian cancer include:
- Pelvic pain
- Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
- Feeling need to urinate often
Other symptoms can include fatigue, upset stomach or heartburn, back pain, pain during sex, constipation or menstrual changes.
If these symptoms are new and persist daily for more than two weeks, you should see your doctor.