What is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian Cancer occurs when malignant or cancerous cells develop on the ovaries, one of two small organs that are on each side of the uterus that store eggs or germ cells and produce female hormones. Cancer develops when cells in a part of the body, such as the ovary, begin to grow at an abnormal rate.

Ovarian tumors can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Although abnormal, cells of benign tumors do not metastasize (spread to other parts of the body). Malignant cancer cells in the ovaries can metastasize in two ways:

  1. directly to other organs in the pelvis and abdomen (the more common way)
  2. through the bloodstream or lymph nodes to other parts of the body


How is it diagnosed?

Once a physician suspects a woman has ovarian cancer due to persistent symptoms (usually after a CA-125 test, ultrasound, and other tests), an exploratory surgical procedure called laparotomy is generally required for the definitive diagnosis of ovarian cancer. We strongly recommend going to a gynecological oncologist if ovarian cancer is suspected.

During this procedure, cysts or other suspicious areas must be removed and biopsied. After the incision is made, the surgeon assesses the fluid and cells in the abdominal cavity. If the lesion is cancerous, the surgeon continues with a process called surgical staging to ascertain how far the cancer has spread. In select cases aspiration of ascites because of metastatic lesion or laparoscopy is used to confirm the diagnosis.

For more Frequently asked questions visit our partner the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund Alliance.

Risk Factors

Risk factors for the development of ovarian cancer include*:

  • BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation
  • A personal or family history of breast, ovarian, or colon cancer
  • Increasing age, although it can occur at ANY age
  • Infertility


The following statistics come primarily from the most recent findings of the Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) Program of the National Cancer Institute and the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund Alliance. SEER numbers are age-adjusted and based on actual data.

  • Ovarian cancer accounts for approximately three percent of cancers in women.
  • While the 8th most common cancer among women, ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer-related death among women, and is the deadliest of gynecologic cancers. Mortality rates are slightly higher for Caucasian women than for African-American women.
  • A woman’s lifetime risk of developing invasive ovarian cancer is 1 in 75. A woman’s lifetime risk of dying from invasive ovarian cancer is 1 in 100.
  • Ovarian cancer rates are highest in women aged 55-64 years. The median age at which women are diagnosed is 63, meaning that half of women are younger than 63 when diagnosed with ovarian cancer and half are older.