Ovarian Cancer: What You Should Know

The California Ovarian Cancer Awareness Program 


What is ovarian cancer?

Cancer is a disease in which cells in the body grow out of control. Cancer is always named for the part of the body where it starts, even if it spreads to other body parts later. When cancer starts in the ovaries, it is called ovarian cancer. Women have two ovaries that are located in the pelvis. The ovaries make female hormones and produce eggs. When ovarian cancer is found in its early stages, treatment is more likely to result in a cure.

Who gets ovarian cancer?

All women are at risk for ovarian cancer, but older women are more likely to get the disease than younger women. About 90 percent of women who get ovarian cancer are older than 40. Women age 55 or older are at the greatest risk.

What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?

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. Women who have these symptoms almost daily for more than a few weeks should see their doctor, preferably a gynecologist.

The following symptoms are much more likely to occur in women with ovarian cancer than women in the general population. These symptoms include:

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

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 commonly found in women in general who do not have ovarian cancer.

This information does not take the place of medical advice.

Are there tests that can find ovarian cancer early?

There is no simple and reliable way to test for ovarian cancer in women who do not have any signs or symptoms. The Pap Test does not check for ovarian cancer. However, here are steps you can take:

  • Pay attention to your body and know what is normal for you.
  • If you notice any changes in your body that are not normal for you and could be a sign of ovarian cancer, talk to your doctor immediately.
  • Ask your doctor if you should have a test, such as a rectovaginal pelvic exam, a transvaginal ultrasound, or a CA-125 blood test if you have any unexplained signs or symptoms of ovarian cancer (these tests sometimes help find or rule out ovarian cancer), had breast, uterine or colorectal cancer or have a close relative that has had ovarian cancer

What raises a woman’s chance of getting ovarian cancer?

There is no way to know for sure if you will get ovarian cancer. Most women get it without being at high risk. However, there are several factors that may increase the chance that you will get ovarian cancer, including if you:

  • Are middle-aged or older
  • Have close family members on either side of your family who have had ovarian cancer
  • Have had breast, uterine, or colorectal cancer
  • Have an Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jewish background
  • Have never given birth or have had trouble getting pregnant
  • Have endometriosis

How can I prevent ovarian cancer?

There is no known way to prevent ovarian cancer. However, here are some factors that may lower your risk. If you have:

  • Used birth control pills for more than 5 years
  • Had a tubal ligation, both ovaries removed, or a hysterectomy
  • Given birth