Women's reproductive system

Quick Facts

  • When ovarian cancer is detected in the early stages, there is an 85 to 90% chance for a cure
  • Approximately 1 in 78 American women will develop ovarian cancer in her lifetime
  • Ovarian cancer is the 5th leading cause of cancer deaths for American women
  • Each year, an estimated 22,000 U.S. women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer
  • About 14,000 U.S. women die from ovarian cancer each year
  • Worldwide, more than 200,000 women are diagnosed and 140,000 women die from ovarian cancer each year
  • Ovarian cancer causes more deaths than all other gynecological cancers combined

What you really need to know about ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer is a disease arising from the ovaries. The ovaries are the female reproductive organs responsible for releasing eggs (or ova, hence the name) and producing estrogen and progesterone hormones. Ovarian cancer often begins as a malignant tumor in one or both ovaries and is more common in post-menopausal women and those with other increased risk factors. A pap test does not screen for ovarian cancer and those who have had their ovaries removed are still at risk. There are more than 30 types of ovarian cancer making it difficult to detect and challenging to treat.

Ovarian cancer is commonly referred to as a “silent killer”

The growth of ovarian cancer cells may not produce any noticeable symptoms. Since the ovaries are about the size of an almond and located deep within the pelvic area, they are difficult to feel. Symptoms often are not noticeable until the tumor has grown and spread beyond the ovaries.  Furthermore, symptoms — such as abdominal bloating/swelling, pain/pressure in the pelvic area and changes in appetite/bowel functions — mimic many less life-threatening gastrointestinal and gynecologic conditions. Most women were never taught the symptoms; they advance slowly, and tend to be ignored until they affect other organs.

Vigilant self-advocacy increases your chance of survival

If detected in the early stages, there is an 85-90% chance for a cure. With early treatment, the five-year survival rate is greater than 92%. However, once the disease has progressed beyond the ovaries, the survival rate beyond five years is below 50%. Sadly, the majority of women with ovarian cancer are not diagnosed until the disease has reached an advanced stage.

All women should know the subtle symptoms, report them to their medical provider and request appropriate testing (see our detection and diagnosis sections) for the best chance to beat this disease. Women can also reduce their risk for ovarian cancer with a personal risk assessment and consultation with their medical provider to discuss risk-reduction strategies.

Ovarian cancer can only be positively diagnosed through a biopsy

Ovarian cancer is difficult to diagnose. There are no screening tests for ovarian cancer. Many women mistakenly believe a Pap Test screens for ovarian cancer. In rare instances, it can detect the disease but the Pap Test is used to screen for cervical cancer.

Currently, there is no widely-used early detection test for ovarian cancer. There are tools and procedures that medical professionals can use to determine the likelihood of ovarian cancer. However, without pathology studies from cells removed during a biopsy or surgery, an ovarian cancer diagnosis cannot be positively confirmed.

There are more than 30 different types of ovarian cancer

About 85 to 90% of ovarian cancers are epithelial in nature and 15-20% have a genetic mutation that plays a role in the development of this disease. With more than 30 types, ovarian cancer is actually many different diseases, each with their own biologic properties and patterns of behavior. The three major types are based on where the cancer originated:

  • Epithelial ovarian cancer originates in the layer of cells that cover the ovary and the entire abdominal cavity. This is the most common type of ovarian cancer, accounting for roughly 90% of all cases.
  • Germ cell ovarian cancer begins in the egg-producing cells inside the ovaries. Teens and women in their 20s are more likely to have this type of ovarian cancer.
  • Sex cord-stromal ovarian cancer originates in the connective tissue of the ovaries, which also produces the female sex hormones.

Fallopian Tube Cancer and Primary Peritoneal Cancer also are categorized within the ovarian cancer spectrum because they have many similar qualities and, at present, are treated with similar protocols. All types of ovarian cancer may spread to other areas of the body and is referred to as metastatic ovarian cancer.