Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer is the growth of cancer cells that begins in the ovaries. The ovaries make eggs and female hormones. This type of cancer most often strikes women age 55 and older, but can happen to younger women. It may be hard to diagnose because it often does not show signs in the early stages.

Ovarian cancer forms in a woman's reproductive organs, called ovaries. The causes of ovarian cancer are not known. Ovarian cancer can invade, shed or spread to other organs in a woman's body.

  • Invade: This happens when cancer grows and spreads to nearby organs, such as the uterus.
  • Shed: This happens when cancer cells break off from the main tumor and spread to form new tumors on nearby organs and tissues, such as the uterus, stomach or abdominal wall.
  • Spread: This happens when cancer cells spread through the lymph system or bloodstream to further parts of the body, such as the lungs or the brain.

Ovarian cancer may not show signs early on. But as the cancer grows, these might be some of the signs:

  • Bloating, puffiness or swelling in the stomach or abdomen
  • Feeling tired and worn out
  • Pain in the pelvis, back or legs
  • Nausea (upset stomach) or gas
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Having no appetite and or losing weight
  • Heavy periods or bleeding after menopause

Risk factors for ovarian cancer include:

  • Age 55 or older: Most women are age 55 or older when diagnosed
  • Family history of ovarian cancer: Women with a mother, daughter or sister with ovarian cancer have a higher risk
  • Personal history of cancer: Women who have had cancer of the breast, uterus or colon or rectum have a higher risk
  • Obesity: Very overweight women may have a higher risk
  • No pregnancies: Women who have never been pregnant are more at risk
  • Hormone therapy: Women who take the female hormone estrogen alone (without the male hormone progesterone) for 10 or more years have a higher risk

Having one or more of these signs, symptoms or risk factors does not mean you have ovarian cancer or that you will get it for sure. Visit your doctor to talk about your risks. Your doctor can do a physical exam and order tests to look for signs of cancer.

Sources: National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health