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Ovarian cancer | Cancer Council Skip to main content

Ovarian Cancer

What is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer is a malignant tumour in one or both ovaries.

Ovarian cancer types 

Epithelial ovarian cancer is the most common type of ovarian cancer (90%) and starts in the surface of the ovary (epithelium). It includes serous, mucinous and endometrioid cancers.

Non-epithelial cancers starts in different parts of the ovary. It includes germ cell ovarian cancer and sex-cord stromal cell cancer.

How common is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer is the eighth most common cancer affecting women in Australia. Around 1,500 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year. One in 81 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer by the age of 85.

Ovarian cancer causes

The cause of ovarian cancer is unknown. However, the following factors increase a woman's chance of developing ovarian cancer:

  • Ageing (risk increases for women over 50)
  • Family history
  • Changes in the genes BRCA1 or BRCA2
  • Being of Northern European or Northern or Ashkenazi Jewish descent
  • Early onset of periods (before 12 years) and late menopause
  • Childlessness
  • Infertility
  • First child after 30
  • Never taking oral contraceptives
  • Using oestrogen only hormone replacement therapy or fertility treatment

There are two genetic conditions known to cause an increased risk of ovarian cancer:

  • Hereditary breast/ovarian cancer
  • Lynch syndrome (hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer or HNPCC)

You may want to talk to your doctor or go to a family cancer clinic if you think you are at risk.

Ovarian cancer symptoms

There may be no symptoms or symptoms may be non-specific and include:

  • abdominal bloating
  • difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
  • frequent or urgent urination
  • back, abdominal or pelvic pain
  • constipation
  • menstrual irregularities
  • fatigue
  • indigestion
  • pain during sexual intercourse

These symptoms are common to many illnesses, and most women with these symptoms will not have ovarian cancer. Only tests can confirm the diagnosis.

Ovarian cancer diagnosis

Most ovarian cancer tumours are present for some time before they are discovered. Sometimes ovarian cancer is found unexpectedly during an operation such as a hysterectomy. There are a number of procedures which can be used to diagnose ovarian cancer.

  • Physical examination
  • Blood tests
  • Imaging and scans

Ovarian cancer treatment

The treatment options for ovarian cancer depends on what type of cancer you have, the stage, your general health and fitness, your doctors' recommendations and your wishes. Epithelial ovarian cancer is commonly treated with surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy, borderline tumours are usually treated with surgery and non-epithelial ovarian cancer is usually treated with surgery and/or chemotherapy.

Your doctor will discuss the most appropriate type of surgery with you.

Ovarian cancer prognosis

An individual’s prognosis depends on the type and stage of cancer as well as their age and general health at the time of diagnosis. If the cancer is treated when it is still confined to the ovaries, 93% patients will be alive in five years. If the cancer has spread to surrounding tissue or organs in the pelvis, this drops to 39%, and if it has spread more distantly, 30%. Survival will vary between individuals and may depend on their response to treatment. In Australia, the overall five year survival rate for women diagnosed with ovarian cancer is 43%.

To find out more about ovarian cancer head to the Cancer Council website.

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