What is ovarian cancer?

Dr. Sharyn N. Lewin, MD
OBGYN (Obstetrician & Gynecologist)

Ovarian cancer is a disease which usually starts on the surface of the ovary, the reproductive organ that is responsible for producing eggs and female hormones. It is the leading cause of death in women's cancers and the fifth leading cause of cancer related deaths among women in the US.

Unfortunately, since it is hard to detect, 75 to 85 percent of these women are diagnosed at an advanced stage when the disease has spread beyond the ovaries. Women are encouraged to educate themselves, listen to their bodies and consult their doctors early.

The encouraging news is that when ovarian cancer is detected early, before it's spread out of the ovary, over 92 percent of the women affected will be alive in five years. Survival has been improving over the last 30 years with advances in surgery and chemotherapy (especially intraperitoneal or chemotherapy in the abdomen).

Ovarian cancer is an abnormal cancer condition that develops in the ovaries. The ovaries are organs that assist with hormones and reproduction.

Ovarian cancer is a malignant tumor that starts growing in an ovary. Sometimes cells in an ovary start misbehaving, making more and more cells without stopping. These cells then group together and form a tumor. Benign tumors stay in one place and do not usually cause problems. Malignant tumors are more dangerous; they can spread or travel to nearby tissues or other places in the body. A malignant tumor that starts growing in an ovary is called ovarian cancer. As the cancer spreads, it can cause problems in different parts of the body, depending on where the cancer cells travel to.

Ovarian cancer is an abnormal growth of the cells within a woman's ovary. The cells begin to divide at a faster rate than cells in normal tissue. These cells become cancerous when they attain the ability to invade, or grow into, nearby tissue and spread to other parts of the body.

In ovarian cancer, the cells of the ovary grow and divide uncontrollably. The cells may form a tumor on the ovary, parts of which can break off and spread to other parts of the body.

Although ovarian cancer can spread throughout the body and affect other organs and systems (brain, lungs, breast and lymph nodes, for example), in most cases it stays in the abdomen and affects organs such as the intestines, liver and stomach.

Ovarian cancer is a complex and rapidly progressive disease that affects a relatively small percentage of women but has poor survival rates. In the United States, the number of deaths attributed to ovarian cancer is about the same as that of all other gynecologic cancers combined.

Ovarian cancer is cancer that begins in the ovaries. In general, ovarian tumors are named for the kind of cells the tumor started from and whether the tumor is benign or cancerous. There are 3 main types of ovarian tumors:

  • Epithelial tumors start from the cells that cover the outer surface of the ovary. Most ovarian tumors are epithelial cell tumors.
  • Germ cell tumors start from the cells that produce the eggs (ova).
  • Stromal tumors start from structural tissue cells that hold the ovary together and produce the female hormones estrogen and progesterone.

Ovarian cancer begins in the ovaries, which are two almond-shaped glands located on either side of the uterus. The ovaries produce the female hormones, estrogen and progesterone, and release eggs during a woman’s reproductive years (the time from her first menstrual period through menopause).

The American Cancer Society estimates there were 21,990 new cases of ovarian cancer diagnosed in the United States in 2011. Ovarian cancer is the eighth most common cancer in women, not including skin cancer.

Ovarian cancer is a disease where some cells in the ovary reproduce and grow out of control. Ovarian cancer also has the ability to spread and invade other parts of the body. It is unclear what causes it.

Ovarian cancer causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system (female sex organs). Hispanic women are the second highest group of women to develop ovarian cancer, after white women.

Ovarian cancer is called the silent killer because there are no early symptoms. Ovarian cancer is usually genetic so family history is important.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.