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Ovarian cancer - the basics

Ovarian cancer can occur at any age but is most common after menopause. About 7,400 new cases of ovarian cancer are diagnosed in the UK each year.

Ovarian cancer occurs when a tumour forms in one or both of a woman's ovaries. The ovaries are a pair of small organs that produce and release ova, or human eggs. Women usually have two ovaries, one on each side of the uterus, each about the size of an almond. The ovaries also produce important hormones such as oestrogen and progesterone. They are located in the lower abdomen (pelvis), on either side of the womb ( uterus). An egg released by the ovaries travel through the fallopian tubes to the uterus, and during this journey it may or may not be fertilised by the male sperm.

Cancerous tumours are malignant. This means they may spread to other tissues and organs.


During her childbearing years, a woman's ovaries deliver eggs to the uterus through the fallopian tubes. The ovaries are susceptible to several types of growths, which are often benign cysts but are sometimes cancerous. The cancer typically has no obvious symptoms until it is well advanced. Early growths can sometimes be detected during a routine pelvic examination.

If ovarian cancer could be readily diagnosed in its earliest stages, more women would be cured. However like many cancers, it usually has spread by the time it is diagnosed. The importance of early diagnosis is clear: about 90% of women live five years or longer if ovarian cancer is detected early; the 5 year survival rate for all cases is only around 46%. Around 29% of ovarian cancers are found at an early stage.

What causes ovarian cancer?

Most women with ovarian cancer have no family history of the disease, yet a woman is more likely to get the disease if her mother or sister has had ovarian, breast, or uterine cancer; the more relatives affected, the greater the risk. Women who have had few or no children, who delay childbearing until their thirties, or who have trouble conceiving are also at greater risk of ovarian cancer. A link between the number of periods in a woman’s life and the risk of ovarian cancer exists as well.

Those who have several children, who breastfeed, or who use the contraceptive pill are at reduced risk. The difference may be linked to less frequent ovulation.

Most ovarian cancers occur after menopause, with half presenting over the age of 65.

The risk of ovarian cancer is higher in overweight women. Also, evidence suggests that the more saturated fat a woman eats, the greater her chance of ovarian cancer. Many high-fat foods contain oestrogen and all stimulate natural oestrogen production. Because most ovarian cancers grow more rapidly in the presence of oestrogen, some experts believe that abnormally elevated oestrogen in a woman's body promotes the onset of ovarian cancer. Using hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for more than 5 years may also slightly increase ovarian cancer risks, but these risks need to be discussed with your doctor and your personal circumstances taken into consideration.

See our article on the symptoms of ovarian cancer.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on March 01, 2017

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