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 2019 there will be about 22,530 new cases of ovarian cancer in the U.S., and about 13,980 women will die because of the disease. Around half of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer are 63 or older. Ovarian cancer is rare in women younger than 40. It is slightly more common in white women than women of other races/ethnicities. A woman's risk of getting ovarian cancer during her lifetime is about 1 in 78, 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. As a result, only 46.5% of women survive longer than 5 years. About 15% 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, more than 90% of patients live longer than 5 years after diagnosis. Several 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 full-term 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)
  • Use of male hormones (androgens)
  • Use of estrogen replacement therapy after menopause. The risk seems to be higher in women taking estrogen alone (without progesterone) for at least 5 or 10 years.
  • Many studies have looked at the possible link between talcum powder and cancer of the ovaries. Findings have been mixed, with some studies reporting a slightly increased risk and some reporting no increase.
  • Some studies have found an increased risk of mucinous ovarian cancer with smoking and alcohol use

Possible Risk Reduction

  • Use of oral contraceptives; the risk is lower the longer the pills are used
  • Having first full-term pregnancy before the age of 26. The risk goes down with each full-term pregnancy.
  • Breastfeeding
  • Tying the fallopian tubes (tubal ligation)
  • Removing the uterus (hysterectomy)
  • Removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes with a hysterectom

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.
  • Have a transvaginal ultrasound.
  • The CA-125 blood test measures the level of a protein in the blood that may increase when a cancerous tumor is present. However, because CA-125 can be elevated by conditions other than cancer, it is not currently recommended for routine screening.
  • It is important to note that none of these tests are definitive. 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


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

Revised 5/20/19