Ovarian cancer forms in tissues of the ovaries. Most ovarian cancers are either ovarian epithelial carcinomas that begin in the cells on the surface of the ovary or malignant germ cell tumors that begin in egg cells. Ovarian low malignant potential tumors have abnormal cells that may become cancer, but usually do not.
Risk Factors and Symptoms
Ovarian cancer is the deadliest type of gynecologic cancer. That's probably because it typically is not diagnosed until it has reached an advanced stage. But you can help protect yourself by knowing if you are at risk and what symptoms to watch for.
Risk Factors for Ovarian Cancer
The exact causes of ovarian cancer are unknown. But the following factors may play a role:
Being older than age 50 increases the odds of developing ovarian cancer.
A woman may be at risk if she has a first-degree relative - that is, a daughter, sister or mother - who has had ovarian cancer. Her risk is particularly high if two or more first-degree relatives have had this cancer.
A history of the disease in other family members is also linked to a higher-than-average risk.
A family history of breast or colon cancer also has been associated with an increased risk of ovarian cancer.
Women who have a strong family history of breast cancer sometimes opt to get checked for the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, which are linked to a high risk of breast cancer. Being a carrier of either one of these genes also is associated with an increased risk of ovarian cancer.
Women who have had colon or breast cancer may face a higher risk for ovarian cancer than those who have not had either of these other cancers.
Women who have never given birth have a higher risk than women who have.
According to some evidence, using hormone replacement therapy after menopause may slightly raise risk. So might the use of fertility drugs that trigger ovulation.
Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer
If detected early, ovarian cancer is treatable. But symptoms often are vague and may not show up until later stages of the cancer. These easy-to-overlook warning signs may include:
- Stomach discomfort, such as indigestion, nausea, swelling or cramps
- Diarrhea, constipation or frequent urination
- Decreased appetite
- Feeling full after even a light meal
- Unexplained weight gain or loss
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Pain during intercourse
Surgery for Ovarian Cancer
For epithelial cancer, germ cell tumor and low malignant potential tumor, most patients have surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible. Options include:
- Total hysterectomy to remove the uterus and cervix, either a vaginal hysterectomy or a total abdominal hysterectomy. The uterus and cervix may also be removed through a small incision in the abdomen using a laparoscope, which is called a total laparoscopic hysterectomy.
- Unilateral salpingo-oophorectomy to remove one ovary and one fallopian tube.
- Bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy to remove both ovaries and both fallopian tubes.
- Omentectomy to remove the omentum, a piece of tissue lining the abdominal wall.
- Lymph node biopsy in which all or part of a lymph node is removed and examined for cancer cells.
An additional option for patients with low malignant potential tumor is partial oophorectomy to remove part of one ovary or part of both ovaries.
Other Treatments for Ovarian Cancer
Even if the surgeon removes all the cancer visible at the time of surgery, some patients may be given chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells. Learn more about radiation therapy.
Ovarian Cancer Specialists
The specialists that diagnose and treat ovarian cancer are called gynecological oncologists. Use Memorial Hermann's physician search to find Houston-area gynecological oncologists.