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Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer forms in tissues of the ovary, one of a pair of female reproductive glands in which the ova, or eggs, are formed. Most ovarian cancers are either ovarian epithelial carcinomas (cancer that begins in the cells on the surface of the ovary) or malignant germ cell tumors (cancer that begins in egg cells).

The National Cancer Institute estimates for 2011:

     New Cases: 21,990
     Deaths: 15,460

Risk Factors


The risk of developing ovarian cancer increases with age. You are at risk if you are middle-aged or older. Ovarian cancer is rare in women younger than 40. Most ovarian cancers occur in woman after the age of 50 and develop after menopause. Half of all ovarian cancers are found in women older than 63. About 1 out of 100 woman will get ovarian cancer by age 70.

Women who have had children have a lower risk of ovarian cancer than women who haven't. The risk drops with each pregnancy and breastfeeding may lower the risk even further. Using oral contraceptives (also known as birth control pills or the Pill) also lowers the risk.

Family History

Ovarian cancer can run in families. Your ovarian cancer risk is increased if your mother, aunt, sister or daughter has or had ovarian cancer, the higher your risk. The risk increases as the number of relatives with ovarian cancer increases. Increased risk for ovarian cancer can come from your mother or father's side of the family.

Signs and Symptoms

Early cancers of the ovaries tend to cause symptoms that are more commonly caused by other things.

  • Vaginal bleeding or discharge from your vagina that is not normal for you.
  • Abdominal swelling or bloating (due to a mass or accumulation of fluid)
  • Pelvic pressure or abdominal pain
  • Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
  • A change in your bathroom habits, such as having to pass urine very badly or very often, constipation or diarrhea.

Most of these symptoms also can be caused by other less serious conditions, but when the symptoms are caused by ovarian cancer they tend to be more severe. By the time ovarian cancer is considered as a possible cause of these symptoms, it may have already spread beyond the ovaries.

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, and they can't be explained by other more common conditions, report them to your healthcare professional -- preferably a gynecologist -- right away.


Since there is no simple and reliable way to screen for any reproductive cancers except for cervical cancer, it is especially important to recognize warning signs and learn what you can to reduce your risk. Tests used most commonly to screen for ovarian cancer: transvaginal ultrasound, rectovaginal exam and CA-125.

  • Transvaginal ultrasound is a test that can help find a mass in the ovary, but it can't actually tell which masses are cancers and which are not.
  • A rectovaginal exam is where a health care provider examines the vagina and rectum while at the same time palpates the abdomen with the other hand. This type of exam allows the health care provider to examine and identify abnormalities, especially on the uterus and ovaries more clearly.
  • CA-125 is a blood test that checks for a protein that is higher in many women with ovarian cancer. The problem with this test is that conditions other than cancer can also cause high levels of CA-125. In addition, someone with ovarian cancer can still have a normal CA-125 level.

About 20 percent of ovarian cancers are found early. When ovarian cancer is found early at is localized, about 94 percent of patients live longer than 5 years after diagnosis. During a pelvic exam, the health care professional feels the ovaries and uterus for size, shape and consistency. Although a pelvic exam is recommended because it can find some reproductive system cancers at an early stage, most early ovarian tumors are difficult or impossible for even the most skilled examiner to feel. Pelvic exams may, however, help identify other cancers or gynecologic conditions. Women should discuss the need for these exams with their healthcare provider.

Although the Pap test is effective in detecting cervical cancer early, it is not a test for ovarian cancer. Rarely ovarian cancers are detected through Pap tests, but usually these are at an advanced stage.

Tobacco Cessation

The use of tobacco in any form is a great health concern. Even if you don't smoke, reduce your exposure to secondhand smoke. If you use tobacco products, prepare yourself to quit as soon as possible.

  • Set a date to stop and mark it on your calendar. Twenty-four hours before the start date make everyone aware of your goal to stop.
  • Remove the smell of tobacco by cleaning your house and car. Remember to get rid of lighters, ashtrays and matches.
  • You can use over-the-counter aids such as nicotine patches and gum. Contact your health insurance provider to see if Nicotine replacement therapy is a covered service.
  • Know what your triggers are that make you want to use tobacco products and be prepared with chewing gum, celery or carrot sticks.
  • Kentucky has a free Quit Now program that helps you quit using tobacco products. You can contact the Quit Now program at (800) 784-8669.



Last Updated 9/28/2012