Ovarian epithelial cancer is the most common type of ovarian cancer. It begins in the tissue that covers the ovaries. This information is not about ovarian germ cell tumors or other types of ovarian cancer. To find out more about all types of ovarian cancer, please visit the National Cancer Institute Web site or ask your cancer care team about your individual situation.
If you have a symptom that suggests ovarian cancer, your doctor must find out whether it is due to cancer or to some other cause. Your doctor may ask about your personal and family medical history.
You may have one or more of the following tests. Your doctor can explain more about each test:
- Physical exam: Your doctor checks general signs of health. Your doctor may press on your abdomen to check for tumors or an abnormal buildup of fluid (ascites). A sample of fluid can be taken to look for ovarian cancer cells.
- Pelvic exam: Your doctor feels the ovaries and nearby organs for lumps or other changes in their shape or size. A Pap test is part of a normal pelvic exam, but it is not used to collect ovarian cells. The Pap test detects cervical cancer. The Pap test is not used to diagnose ovarian cancer.
- Blood tests: Your doctor may order blood tests. The lab may check the level of several substances, including CA-125. CA-125 is a substance found on the surface of ovarian cancer cells and on some normal tissues. A high CA-125 level could be a sign of cancer or other conditions. The CA-125 test is not used alone to diagnose ovarian cancer. This test is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for monitoring a woman’s response to ovarian cancer treatment and for detecting its return after treatment.
- Ultrasound: The ultrasound device uses sound waves that people cannot hear. The device aims sound waves at organs inside the pelvis. The waves bounce off the organs. A computer creates a picture from the echoes. The picture may show an ovarian tumor. For a better view of the ovaries, the device may be inserted into the vagina (transvaginal ultrasound).
- Biopsy: A biopsy is the removal of tissue or fluid to look for cancer cells. Based on the results of the blood tests and ultrasound, your doctor may suggest surgery (a laparotomy) to remove tissue and fluid from the pelvis and abdomen. Surgery is usually needed to diagnose ovarian cancer. To learn more about surgery, see the “Treatment” section.
Although most women have a laparotomy for diagnosis, some women have a procedure known as laparoscopy. The doctor inserts a thin, lighted tube (a laparoscope) through a small incision in the abdomen. Laparoscopy may be used to remove a small, benign cyst or an early ovarian cancer. It may also be used to learn whether cancer has spread.
A pathologist uses a microscope to look for cancer cells in the tissue or fluid. If ovarian cancer cells are found, the pathologist describes the grade of the cells. Grades 1, 2, and 3 describe how abnormal the cancer cells look. Grade 1 cancer cells are not as likely as to grow and spread as Grade 3 cells.
To plan the best treatment, your doctor needs to know the grade of the tumor and the extent (stage) of the disease. The stage is based on whether the tumor has invaded nearby tissues, whether the cancer has spread, and if so, to what parts of the body.
Usually, surgery is needed before staging can be complete. The surgeon takes many samples of tissue from the pelvis and abdomen to look for cancer.
Your doctor may order tests to find out whether the cancer has spread:
- CT scan: Doctors often use CT scans to make pictures of organs and tissues in the pelvis or abdomen. An x-ray machine linked to a computer takes several pictures. You may receive contrast material by mouth and by injection into your arm or hand. The contrast material helps the organs or tissues show up more clearly. Abdominal fluid or a tumor may show up on the CT scan.
- Chest x-ray: X-rays of the chest can show tumors or fluid.
- Barium enema x-ray: Your doctor may order a series of x-rays of the lower intestine. You are given an enema with a barium solution. The barium outlines the intestine on the x-rays. Areas blocked by cancer may show up on the x-rays.
- Colonoscopy: Your doctor inserts a long, lighted tube into the rectum and colon. This exam can help tell if cancer has spread to the colon or rectum.
These are the stages of ovarian cancer:
- Stage I: Cancer cells are found in one or both ovaries. Cancer cells may be found on the surface of the ovaries or in fluid collected from the abdomen.
- Stage II: Cancer cells have spread from one or both ovaries to other tissues in the pelvis. Cancer cells are found on the fallopian tubes, the uterus, or other tissues in the pelvis. Cancer cells may be found in fluid collected from the abdomen.
- Stage III: Cancer cells have spread to tissues outside the pelvis or to the regional lymph nodes. Cancer cells may be found on the outside of the liver.
- Stage IV: Cancer cells have spread to tissues outside the abdomen and pelvis. Cancer cells may be found inside the liver, in the lungs, or in other organs.
Your doctor can describe your treatment choices and the expected results. Most women have surgery and chemotherapy. Rarely, radiation therapy is used.
Cancer treatment can affect cancer cells in the pelvis, in the abdomen, or throughout the body:
- Local therapy: Surgery and radiation therapy are local therapies. They remove or destroy ovarian cancer in the pelvis. When ovarian cancer has spread to other parts of the body, local therapy may be used to control the disease in those specific areas.
- Intraperitoneal chemotherapy: Chemotherapy can be given directly into the abdomen and pelvis through a thin tube. The drugs destroy or control cancer in the abdomen and pelvis.
- Systemic chemotherapy: When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein, the drugs enter the bloodstream and destroy or control cancer throughout the body.
You may want to know how treatment may change your normal activities. You and your doctor can work together to develop a treatment plan that meets your medical and personal needs.
The surgeon makes a long cut in the wall of the abdomen. This type of surgery is called a laparotomy. If ovarian cancer is found, the surgeon removes:
- both ovaries and fallopian tubes (salpingo-oophorectomy)
- the uterus (hysterectomy)
- the omentum (the thin, fatty pad of tissue that covers the intestines)
- nearby lymph nodes
- samples of tissue from the pelvis and abdomen
If the cancer has spread, the surgeon removes as much cancer as possible. This is called “debulking” surgery.
If you have early Stage I ovarian cancer, the extent of surgery may depend on whether you want to get pregnant and have children. Some women with very early ovarian cancer may decide with their doctor to have only one ovary, one fallopian tube, and the omentum removed.
Chemotherapy uses anticancer drugs to kill cancer cells. Most women have chemotherapy for ovarian cancer after surgery. Some women have chemotherapy before surgery.
Usually, more than one drug is given. Drugs for ovarian cancer can be given in different ways:
- By vein (IV): The drugs can be given through a thin tube inserted into a vein.
- By vein and directly into the abdomen: Some women get IV chemotherapy along with intraperitoneal (IP) chemotherapy. For IP chemotherapy, the drugs are given through a thin tube inserted into the abdomen.
- By mouth: Some drugs for ovarian cancer can be given by mouth.
Chemotherapy is given in cycles. Each treatment period is followed by a rest period. The length of the rest period and the number of cycles depend on the anticancer drugs used.
You may have your treatment in a clinic, at the doctor’s office, or at home. Some women may need to stay in the hospital during treatment.
Radiation therapy is rarely used in the initial treatment of ovarian cancer, but it may be used to relieve pain and other problems caused by the disease. The treatment is given at a hospital or clinic. Each treatment takes only a few minutes.