Cancer Series: Ovarian Cancer

What is Ovarian Cancer?

Cancer is a term that describes a collection of related diseases. Cancer occurs when some of the body’s cells divide continuously and invade surrounding cells. Cancerous cells can start anywhere in the body and spread to localized regions (around the point of origin) and then to distant parts of the body, away from the site of origin.

Ovarian cancer begins in the ovaries, or in the areas close to the ovaries, such as the fallopian tubes and the peritoneum. Women have two ovaries, one on each side of the uterus. The ovaries make female hormones and produce eggs. Fallopian tubes are a pair of ducts, one on each side of the uterus, that transport eggs from the ovaries to the uterus. The peritoneum is the tissue lining that covers organs in the abdomen. Ovarian cancer is the second most common gynecologic cancer, after uterine cancer.

Ovarian cancer represents 1.2% of all new cancer cases and 2.3% of cancer deaths in the US.

The median age at diagnosis is 63.

Median age at death is 70.

49% of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer survive beyond five years of diagnosis.

58% of ovarian cancer cases are detected at distant sites (cancer has metastasized) and 21% are detected at regional sites (spread to regional lymph nodes).

Only 16% of ovarian cancer cases are detected at localized sites, where the cancer is confined to the primary area of origin.

Early (localized) ovarian cancer presents few or no symptoms and women are generally unaware of an ongoing health problem. Consequently, they may consult with health care providers only when there are notable symptoms. This poses difficulty in detecting early ovarian cancer and presents a major challenge in reducing the prevalence of this disease, and in improving survival outcomes. Yet it is critical to recognize the main disease symptoms and to take a proactive approach in disease management by consulting with health care providers promptly to increase the likelihood of early detection and to improve survival odds.

Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer

Vaginal bleeding (particularly post menopause), or abnormal vaginal discharge.

Pain or pressure in the pelvic area.

Abdominal or back pain.


Feeling full too quickly.

Difficulty eating.

Change in bathroom habits, such as more frequent or urgent need to urinate.


Risk Factors

Several factors may increase a woman’s risk for ovarian cancer. Some of these risk factors are common to other cancers. Having one or more of these risk factors does not signify that a woman will develop ovarian cancer, it simply indicates an elevated probability of developing the disease. Following are the main risk factors:

Age – middle-aged or older.

Having a close family member (mother, sister, aunt, or grandmother) who has had ovarian cancer.

Having a genetic abnormality called BRCA1 or BRCA2.

Having had breast, uterine or colon cancer.

Eastern European or Ashkenazi Jewish background.

Endometriosis (a condition where tissue from the lining of the uterus grows elsewhere in the body).


As with other cancers, the burden of, and the mortality associated with ovarian cancer affects certain population groups more than others.

Among ovarian cancer cases, African American women often have poor survival odds compared to other groups.

Compared to other groups, African American women are more likely to receive care and treatment that are outside the guidelines of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network guidelines.

African American women compared to white women with ovarian cancer are more likely to have an early discontinuation of treatment.


Ovarian cancer is the second leading gynecologic cancer and a difficult disease for which to develop early detection tools. Disease burden and survival rates are poorer for African American women, yet this is not an inevitable situation. Understanding risk factors and symptoms builds awareness and gives women the ability to seek better treatment options if they develop ovarian cancer. African American women in particular should develop a strong awareness of risk factors for ovarian and other gynecologic cancers. Nurturing supportive relationships with culturally competent health care providers and finding strong advocates for care is key to taking control of health and having superb support and care in the event of an ovarian or any other cancer diagnosis.

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Next in series: Lung Cancer

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