Cancer Types - Ovarian

Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer starts in the ovaries, reproductive glands found only in women. Women have two ovaries, one on each side of the uterus in the pelvis. The ovaries produce eggs that travel through the fallopian tubes into the uterus, where the fertilized egg implants and develops into a fetus. The ovaries are the main source of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone.

The ovaries consist of three kinds of cells where tumors can develop: germ cells, which form eggs; stromal cells, which release hormones and connect the structures of the ovaries; and epithelial cells, which cover the outer surface of the ovaries (most ovarian tumors are epithelial cell tumors). Some tumors are non-cancerous and never spread beyond the ovary. Benign tumors can be treated either by removing the ovary or the portion of the ovary that contains the tumor. However, malignant (cancerous) or low malignant potential ovarian tumors can spread to other parts of the body and could be fatal.


Ovarian cancer ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women, according to the American Cancer Society, which estimates that about 22,440 new cases of ovarian cancer will be diagnosed in the United States in 2017. A woman's risk of getting ovarian cancer during her lifetime is about 1 in 75. Her lifetime chance of dying from ovarian cancer is about 1 in 100. Ovarian cancer mainly develops in older women, the American Cancer Society says. About half of the women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer are 63 years of age or older.


Although women are more likely to experience symptoms of ovarian cancer after the disease has spread beyond the ovaries, symptoms can present in the early stages of the disease. Symptoms might include:

  • An upset stomach, trouble eating or feeling full quickly
  • Bloating
  • Menstrual changes
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Fatigue
  • Back pain
  • Feeling the need to urinate urgently or quite frequently
  • Pain during sex
  • Constipation

Any of these symptoms may be caused by cancer or by other, less serious health problems.


If there is any reason to suspect ovarian cancer, the doctor will use one or more methods to find out if the disease is actually present. Some of the tests that may be done include:

Imaging studies (i.e., computed tomography [CT] scans and magnetic resonance imaging [MRI])
These tests can show whether there is a mass in the pelvis, but they cannot tell if it is cancer.

An ultrasound uses sound waves to create an image on a video screen. This method can be helpful in locating an ovarian tumor and determining if it is a solid mass (tumor) or a fluid-filled cyst.

CT scans
CT scans (computed tomography) use an X-ray beam to take a series of pictures of the body from many angles. A computer combines the pictures to form a detailed image. CT scans can spot larger tumors and help determine whether a tumor has spread to other organs. CT scans can also be used to guide a biopsy needle into a tumor in order to remove a sample of tissue.

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), like a CT scan, displays a cross-sectional picture of the body. But the MRI uses radio waves and strong magnets instead of X-rays. MRI scans are helpful in looking at the brain and spinal cord.

Chest X-rays
Chest X-rays may be taken to see if the cancer has spread to the lungs.

Laparoscopy (lap-uh-ROS-ku-pe) is another method that lets the doctor see the ovaries and other pelvic organs. A thin, lighted tube is placed through a small cut (incision) into the lower abdomen.

Biopsy is the only way to tell for certain if a growth in the pelvis is cancer. A sample of tissue or fluid is removed and examined under a microscope to see if cancer cells are present.


The main treatments for ovarian cancer are surgery, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, targeted therapy and radiation therapy. In some cases, multiple treatment options may be recommended.

Surgery is the main treatment for most ovarian cancers. How much and what type of surgery a woman has depends on how far the cancer has spread, her general health and whether she still hopes to have children. Your surgeon should be experienced in ovarian cancer surgery. Many doctors refer their patients to gynecologic oncologists.

Chemotherapy uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping the cells from dividing. The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated. The Medical Oncology/Hematology Division at Sinai directs the chemotherapy program at LifeBridge Health.

Radiation therapy
Radiation therapy uses high-energy X-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells. The Department of Radiation Oncology at Sinai Hospital provides the most advanced radiotherapy for many cancers.

Clinical trials
Clinical trials are research studies conducted with people who volunteer to participate. The study examines questions and tries to find better ways to prevent, screen for, diagnose or treat a disease. People who take part in cancer clinical trials receive up-to-date care from experts.

For trials that are currently available to ovarian cancer patients, click here.

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