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Ovarian Cancer

The American Cancer Society estimates that 22,440 are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year and 14,080 will die from the disease.  It is the deadliest gynecologic cancer and is the 5th cause of cancer deaths in women.  The five year survival rate for ovarian cancer is 46%. If caught early, however, over 90% of women with ovarian cancer are alive five years later.

Types of Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer usually is seen on the surface of the ovary.  Many types of tumors can start in the ovaries. Some are benign (non-cancerous) and never spread beyond the ovary. Women with these types of tumors can be treated by removing either the ovary or the part of the ovary that has the tumor. Other types of tumors are cancerous (malignant) and can spread to other parts of the body. As a rule, tumors in the ovary are named for the kinds of cells the tumor started from and whether the tumor is benign or cancerous. There are 3 main types of tumors:

Germ cell tumors: These start from the cells that produce the eggs.

Stromal tumors: These start from cells that hold the ovary together and make the female hormones.

Epithelial tumors: These tumors start from the cells that cover the outer surface of the ovary. Most ovarian tumors are epithelial cell tumors.

Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer is not the silent killer it was once said to be.  In 2007, scientists confirmed what women have long known: ovarian cancer has symptoms. Since there is no reliable screening tool for ovarian cancer, symptom awareness remains of key importance.  Being aware of symptoms can help women get diagnosed sooner. Early stage diagnosis is associated with an improved prognosis.

Ovarian Cancer Consensus Statement

Leading cancer organizations, led by The Gynecologic Cancer Foundation, the Society of Gynecologic Oncologists and the American Cancer Society, have endorsed the following consensus statement on ovarian cancer symptoms:

Historically ovarian cancer was called the “silent killer” because symptoms were not thought to develop until the chance of cure was poor. However, recent studies have shown this term is untrue and that the following symptoms are much more likely to occur in women with ovarian cancer than women in the general population.  These symptoms include:

  • Bloating
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
  • Urinary symptoms (urgency or frequency)

Women with ovarian cancer report that symptoms are persistent and represent a change from normal for their bodies. The frequency and/or number of such symptoms are key factors in the diagnosis of ovarian cancer. Several studies show that even early stage ovarian cancer can produce these symptoms.

Women who have these symptoms almost daily for more than a few weeks should see their doctor, preferably a gynecologist. Prompt medical evaluation may lead to detection at the earliest possible stage of the disease. Early stage diagnosis is associated with an improved prognosis.

Several other symptoms have been commonly reported by women with ovarian cancer.  These symptoms include fatigue, indigestion, back pain, pain with intercourse, constipation and menstrual irregularities. However, these other symptoms are not as useful in identifying ovarian cancer because they are also found in equal frequency in women in the general population who do not have ovarian cancer.


For more information see:
Gynecologic Cancer Foundation: www.wcn.org
Ovarian Cancer National Alliance: www.ovariancancer.org
American Cancer Society: www.cancer.org
National Cancer Institute: www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/ovarian
Foundation for Women’s Cancer: http://www.foundationforwomenscancer.org/educational-materials/ovarian-cancer/   To download information in English and Spanish on ovarian cancer, including risk factors, understanding CA-125 levels, and links to breast cancer and a video on What Every Woman Should Know About Ovarian Cancer.
FORCE (Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered): www.facingourrisk.org   Helping people dealing with hereditary breast, ovarian, and related cancers.


Sources:  Women’s Cancer Network, the Gynecologic Cancer Foundation; American Cancer Society, OCRFA

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