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About Ovarian Cancer*

Ovarian cancer is cancer that begins in tissues of the ovaries. It ranks fifth as the cause of cancer death in women. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2018 there will be about 22,240 new cases of ovarian cancer in the U.S., and about 14,070 women will die because of the disease. Around half of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer are 63 or older. It is more common in white women than African-American women. A woman's risk of getting ovarian cancer during her lifetime is about 1 in 79, and her lifetime chance of dying from ovarian cancer is about 1 in 108.

Ovarian cancer is sometimes called "the disease that whispers" because it very often is not detected until it is in the advanced stages. Currently, there is no effective means of early detection for the disease. About 20% of cases are diagnosed in the early stages, before the cancer has spread beyond the ovary to the pelvic region. If ovarian cancer is detected and treated early, 94% of patients live longer than 5 years after diagnosis. Several large studies are in progress to learn the best ways to find ovarian cancer in its earliest stage.

Some Signs and Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer
  • Upset stomach
  • Abdominal bloating, pelvic and/or abdominal pain, and/or feeling full quickly
  • Unexplained change in bowel habits (constipation or diarrhea)
  • Increased frequency and/or urgency of urination
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Menstrual irregularities
  • Back pain
  • Pain during sex
Some Risk Factors
  • Increasing age, with highest occurrence in women after menopause
  • Family or personal history of ovarian, breast, or colorectal cancer
  • Having no pregnancies or having a first full-term pregnancy after age 35
  • Presence of BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations as well as the genes related to other family cancer syndromes
  • Obesity (a body mass index of at least 30)
  • Taking estrogen alone (without progesterone) for at least 5 or 10 years
  • Using the fertility drug clomiphene citrate (ClomidŽ) for longer than one year
Possible Risk Reduction
  • Use of oral contraceptives for five or more years can reduce risk by approximately 50%
  • Multiple pregnancies, having first full-term pregnancy before the age of 26
  • Breast feeding
  • Tying the tubes (tubal ligation) may reduce the chance of developing ovarian cancer by up to two-thirds
  • Removing the uterus (hysterectomy) seems to reduce the risk by about one-third
  • Removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes (oopherectomy)
  • Following a low-fat diet for at least four years
What to Do If You are Concerned or Have Symptoms that Persist
  • Speak to your gynecologist or a gynecologic oncologist for more information.
  • Have a vaginal-rectal pelvic examination.
  • A transvaginal ultrasound can help find a mass in the ovary but cannot tell if the mass is cancer or benign. When it is used for screening, most of the masses found are not cancer.
  • CA-125 is a protein in the blood. Checking CA-125 levels has not been found to be a useful screening test for ovarian cancer. Common conditions other than cancer can cause high levels of CA-125. Also, not everyone who has ovarian cancer has a high CA-125 level. No major medical or professional organization recommends the routine use of transvaginal ultrasound or the CA-125 blood test to screen for ovarian cancer.
  • It is important to note that none of these tests are definitive when used on their own. The only way to confirm the presence of ovarian cancer is through a surgical biopsy of the tumor tissue.
  • Note: A PAP test is used to detect cervical cancer, NOT ovarian cancer.
For More Information Support

* The information in this section was obtained primarily from the American Cancer Society web site, www.cancer.org, and the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund Alliance web site, www.ocrfa.org.

Revised 2/28/18