What is ovarian cancer?

The ovaries are almond-shaped organs on each side of the uterus that store eggs and produce the hormones estrogen and progesterone. In ovarian cancer, malignant cells begin to grow in the ovaries. Half of ovarian cancers are found in women over age 63.

Importance of ovarian cancer screening

There are currently no methods to screen for ovarian cancer. However, certain symptoms, such as bloating, abdominal pain and urinary symptoms, can suggest its presence. It’s important for women – and their providers – to be aware of the early signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer. The earlier ovarian cancer is detected, the more successfully it can be treated.


Ovulating less often may protect against ovarian cancer, as it is less common in women who have taken birth control. The risk is reduced by nearly 50% in women who have taken the pill for at least five years as compared to women who have not. Other ways to reduce your risk include:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Breast-feeding after pregnancy
  • Adopting a low-fat, diet rich in fruits and vegetables
  • Exercising 30 minutes every day

Who is most at risk of developing ovarian cancer?

Around 20% of ovarian cancers are caused by mutations in genes you inherit from your parents such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, which also increase the risk of breast cancer. If your family came from Eastern Europe or you are of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, your odds of having a BRCA mutation are higher.

If you began menstruating earlier, or started menopause later, than average, you may have an increased risk of ovarian cancer. Other factors include:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Never having been pregnant
  • Having endometriosis, a painful disorder in which tissue similar to the uterine lining grows outside the uterus

Risk stratification for ovarian cancer is vital, as there is no reliable way to screen for ovarian cancer before symptoms appear. Your provider may recommend a pelvic exam, an ultrasound or CT scan, or a CA-125 blood test to measure the level of tumor markers that may indicate cancer.

Inherited variants are thought to contribute to 5% to 10% of all cancers. Our providers can perform genetic testing to develop a personalized risk assessment for you.

If you’re diagnosed with ovarian cancer, your doctor will determine the cancer’s stage using the results of diagnostic tests, imaging scans and tumor samples. Like other cancers, ovarian cancer stages range from Stage I to Stage IV.

Most women with Stage I ovarian cancer have an excellent prognosis, with patients having a five-year survival rate of more than 90%. By Stage IV, the cancer will have spread as far away as the lungs. Other factors affect a woman’s prognosis, including her general health, the grade of the cancer, and how well the cancer responds to treatment.