Sisterhood Ovarian Cancer Foundation

Improving the Lives of Those Affected by Ovarian Cancer

What is Ovarian Cancer?

Most women have two ovaries, one on each side of the uterus. The ovaries produce eggs and female sex hormones estrogen and progesterone. Ovarian cancer is a disease in which normal ovarian cells begin to grow in an erratic, abnormal manner, producing tumors in one or both ovaries.

Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of death among women with cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. It's estimated that approximately 20,000 women in the United States will develop ovarian cancer this year and about 15,000 deaths from ovarian cancer will occur in American women during that same period.

The chances of surviving ovarian cancer are better if the cancer is found early; however the disease is often hard to detect at it's onset.  Only about 20 percent of ovarian cancers are found before tumor growth has spread to adjacent tissue and organs other than the ovaries.  Often, the disease has already advanced before it's diagnosed.

In the past, doctors thought that early-stage ovarian cancer rarely produced any symptoms; however recent evidence has shown that majority of women may have signs and symptoms even in the early stages of the disease. Being aware of them may assist with earlier detection.

Ovarian Cancer Symptoms

Symptoms of ovarian cancer sometimes mimic those of many other more common conditions, including digestive and bladder disorders. It isn't unusual for a woman with ovarian cancer to be misdiagnosed before ultimately learning she has cancer. The key seems to be patient persistent or worsening symptoms. With most digestive disorders, symptoms usually come and go, or they occur in certain situations or are triggered by certain foods. With ovarian cancer, there's typically little fluctuation — symptoms are constant and worsen over time.

Many studies have shown that women with ovarian cancer are more likely to experience the following symptoms on a consistent basis:

  • Abdominal pressure, fullness, swelling or bloating
  • Urinary urgency
  • Pelvic discomfort or pain

Additional signs and symptoms that women with ovarian cancer may experience include:

  • Persistent indigestion, gas or nausea
  • Unexplained changes in bowel habits, including diarrhea or constipation
  • Changes in bladder habits, including a frequent need to urinate
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss or gain
  • Increased abdominal girth or clothes fitting tighter around your waist
  • Pain during intercourse (dyspareunia)
  • A persistent lack of energy
  • Low back pain

Doctors can usually diagnose ovarian cancer within three months of women first noticing symptoms, but sometimes it may take six months or longer before a diagnosis can be made. Women with ovarian cancer often have an elevated level of cancer antigen 125 (CA 125), which can be detected in a blood test; however an elevated CA 125 level doesn't always mean you have ovarian cancer. Other conditions can also cause an elevated CA 125 level, such as:

  • Endometriosis
  • Pancreatitis
  • Pregnancy
  • Normal menstruation
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease

In addition, some women with ovarian cancer never have an elevated CA 125 level.   As a result of these limitations, this test sometimes isn't useful as a screening for ovarian cancer.

CA 125 readings can be used to assess how ovarian cancer is responding to treatment. In women receiving chemotherapy for ovarian cancer, a decreasing CA 125 level often indicates that the cancer is responding to treatment. A rising level may indicate a return or continued growth of the cancer.

If you have an elevated CA 125 level but haven't been diagnosed with cancer, your doctor may recommend further testing to look for the cause.


                                                                                                                                                      *information obtained from the Mayo Clinic