Ovarian Cancer

We still do not know the exact causes of ovarian cancer - nor how to prevent it. However, we include ovarian cancer here, as we do know some of the risk factors, as well as its early signs, which if quickly followed-up on with a medical provider, can increase the probability of a good outcome.

Ovarian cancer is the most fatal of all cancers involving a woman's reproductive tract. Most ovarian cancer develops after menopause; about two-thirds of ovarian cancers occur in women over age 55. Unfortunately, less than 20 percent of ovarian cancers are diagnosed at an early stage, when the disease is confined to the ovary and is most easily treated. An estimated 21,550 American women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2009, according to the American Cancer Society, and about 14,600 will die of the disease.

The symptoms of ovarian cancer (particularly in its early stage) are often not obvious or intense. They include:

  • Pelvic or abdominal pain, pressure or discomfort
  • Vague but persistent gastrointestinal upsets such as gas, nausea and indigestion
  • Frequency and/or urgency of urination in absence of an infection
  • Changes in bowel habits
  • Weight gain or loss; particularly weight gain in the abdominal area
  • Pelvic or abdominal swelling, bloating or a feeling of fullness
  • Back or leg pain
  • Pain during intercourse
  • Ongoing fatigue

There is no known way to prevent ovarian cancer, but your level of risk may be reduced by:

  • Having both ovaries removed; this procedure, called an oophorectomy, is only performed on women who have an extremely high risk of ovarian cancer, usually only in women who have completed childbearing, but, ideally, by age 35. While it significantly reduces the risk of cancer, it doesn't entirely eliminate it. There is still a slight risk of primary peritoneal cancer, which stems from the same cells that lead to ovarian cancer.
  • Using oral contraceptives for five or more years. This can reduce your risk as much as 50 percent.
  • Having one or more children and breastfeeding. The more children you've had, the lower your risk. However, taking the pill has a greater impact on ovarian cancer risk than pregnancy.
  • Having a tubal ligation, a surgical procedure in which the fallopian tubes are tied to prevent pregnancy. Some studies show that when performed after childbearing, tubal ligation can reduce the risk for ovarian cancer up to 67 percent. However, this procedure should only be done for valid medical reasons, not solely to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer.
  • Having a hysterectomy, an operation in which your uterus is removed, may also reduce your risk. However, you should not have a hysterectomy just to reduce your risk of ovarian cancer. If you are having a hysterectomy for a medical reason and you have a family history of ovarian or breast cancer or are over age 40, talk to your doctor about also having your ovaries removed.

(This information was provided by HealthyWomen. For more information on ovarian cancer, click here. HealthyWomen is an NCWO affiliate.)

NCWO affiliate Programs & Campaigns

Ovarian Cancer National Alliance

National Women's Health Network

National Research Center for Women and Families

Other Resources

American Cancer Society

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists


Gynecologic Cancer Foundation

National Cancer Institute

National Ovarian Cancer Coalition

Gilda Radner Familial Ovarian Cancer Registry

H.H.S. Office of Women’s Health

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