What Everyone Must Know About Ovarian Cancer

Learn about the symptoms, risk factors, prognosis, and more.

Front view of a frustrated woman suffering from an acute pelvic pain on the bench

Updated on February 8, 2023

Ovarian cancer is the fifth-leading cause of cancer death among women in the United States. If treated early, before the cancer has spread, the five-year survival rate is about 93 percent. But survival rates drop steeply as the disease progresses. 

With that in mind, here are the five things everyone needs to know about ovarian cancer.

Symptoms tend to whisper. Ovarian cancer is difficult to detect in its early stages because there frequently aren’t symptoms. When there are symptoms, such as bloating or diarrhea, they may be easily overlooked or attributed to other issues. That being said, common signs of the condition include abdominal swelling, belly or pelvic pain, difficulty eating, feeling full quickly, and having to urinate often or very suddenly. In the course of a month, if you have any of these symptoms more than 12 times, see a healthcare provider (HCP). 

Some factors increase your risk. The biggest risk factor for ovarian cancer is family history. Having a first-degree relative (a sister, your mother) with the disease greatly increases your chances of developing it. Genetic mutations play a role, too. For example, people who inherit a harmful BRCA1 (BReast CAncer gene 1) variant have up to a 44 percent chance of developing ovarian cancer by ages 70 to 80, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Up to 17 percent of those with a BRCA2 mutation will develop the disease. People with hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (Lynch syndrome) are also at higher risk. 

But that only accounts for a small minority of cases—ovarian cancer doesn’t run in the family for the majority of people with the illness. Other factors increasing your risk include:

  • Your age—about 88 percent of cases occur in those aged 45 and older
  • Having never carried a baby to full term
  • Having a baby for the first time after age 35
  • Being overweight or having obesity
  • Endometriosis

Studies also suggest there is a link between hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and ovarian cancer. The risk gradually decreases once you stop using HRT.

Other factors can lower your risk. According to Donnica Moore, MD, using birth control pills (specifically for premenopausal women) is the number one thing you can do to proactively reduce your risk of ovarian cancer. Whether or not you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, taking birth control pills for at least five years (not necessarily consecutively) cuts your chances up to 50 percent.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding have also been shown to lower risk, as does undergoing tubal ligation, a surgery to prevent pregnancy. Depending on your individual medical situation, having a hysterectomy (removal of the uterus), a salpingectomy (removal of the fallopian tubes), or a salpingo-oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes) can reduce your risk, as well.

All of these factors cut the number of times a person ovulates, and research shows the risk of ovarian cancer decreases when you ovulate less.

Screening may not be a good option yet. There is no reliable ovarian cancer screening. After analyzing multiple studies of people screened for the disease, the United States Preventive Service Task Force concluded these tests do more harm than good because they lead to too many false positives.

When the disease is suspected, an HCP may order a transvaginal ultrasound and a blood test for cancer marker CA-125. These tests are typically reserved for people considered to be at high risk. This is why it’s so important to pay attention to potential warning signs. 

Ovarian cancer is not a death sentence. Once you have symptoms or are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, it’s not too late. There are several ways to treat the disease depending on the type of cancer you have and how far it has spread. Treatments include chemotherapy, immunotherapy, targeted therapy, hormone therapy, surgery, and or radiation therapy. Talk to an HCP about the options available to you, as well as the benefits and side effects.

Article sources open article sources

National Cancer Institute: Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program. Cancer Facts: Common Cancer Sites. Accessed February 8, 2023.
National Cancer Institute. Ovarian, Fallopian Tube, and Primary Peritoneal Cancer Screening (PDQ)–Patient Version. Updated June 10, 2022.
American Cancer Society. Survival Rates for Ovarian Cancer. Last revised March 1, 2022.
American Cancer Society. Can Ovarian Cancer Be Found Early? Last revised July 24, 2020.
American Cancer Society. Signs and Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer. Last revised April 11, 2018.
National Cancer Institute. Ovarian, Fallopian Tube, and Primary Peritoneal Cancer Prevention (PDQ)–Patient Version. Updated August 23, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer: Breast and Ovarian Cancer and Family History Risk Categories. Page last reviewed March 25, 2020.
National Cancer Institute. BRCA Gene Mutations: Cancer Risk and Genetic Testing. Reviewed November 19, 2020.
Penn Medicine Abramson Cancer Center. Risk Factors for Ovarian Cancer. Accessed February 8, 2023.
U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Ovarian Cancer: Screening. February 13, 2018.
American Cancer Society. Ovarian Cancer Risk Factors. Last Revised January 26, 2021.
Kvaskoff M, Horne AW, Missmer SA. Informing women with endometriosis about ovarian cancer risk. The Lancet. December 2, 2017. Volume 390, Issue 10111, p2433-2434.
Mayo Clinic. Ovarian cancer. August 31, 2021.
American Cancer Society. Treating Ovarian Cancer. Accessed February 8, 2023.
American Cancer Society. Ovarian Cancer Stages. Last revised April 11, 2018.
The role of the obstetrician–gynecologist in the early detection of epithelial ovarian cancer in women at average risk. Committee Opinion No. 716. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Obstet Gynecol 2017;130:e146–9. 
National Cancer Institute. Oral Contraceptives and Cancer Risk. Reviewed February 22, 2018.

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