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What is it?

Cancer of the ovaries is the 8th most common cancer in women in Australia. Over 1,200 new cases are diagnosed in Australia each year. In 2014, about 1,470 Australian women are expected to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It is a more frequent cause of death than the more common and more easily detected cancers of the uterus and cervix.

Women have two ovaries located in the lower abdomen above and to either side of the uterus. The ovaries vary in size, but often measure about 3cm x 2cm x 1cm. They are connected to the uterus by fallopian tubes. Ovaries have two main functions. They produce oestrogen and progesterone, the hormones responsible for the development of the features that distinguish women from men. These hormones also regulate the periods and the development and release of an egg into the fallopian tube once a month during childbearing years.

Ovarian tumours can be either benign or malignant; it is not usually possible to tell them apart until they have been removed or biopsied or the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. About 85% of ovarian tumours arise from the cells covering the outside of the ovaries (surface epithelial cells). They may also arise in the egg-producing cells (germ cells) or more rarely in the connective tissue that produces oestrogen and progesterone (these are called sex cord and stromal cells).

While benign tumours do not metastasise, cancerous ovarian tumours will spread if left unchecked – first into the tissue of the ovaries, then often to the uterus, bladder, rectum, and the lining of the abdomen. Eventually, cancerous cells will reach the lymph nodes and metastasise further, travelling throughout the body and invading other organs, such as the lungs.

The main risk factors for ovarian cancer appear to be increasing age (ovarian cancers are rare before 45 and most occur between 65 and 74) and a family history of ovarian and/or breast cancer. However, less than 10% of ovarian cancer appears to be linked to an inherited genetic predisposition. Slightly increased risks may be associated with not having children, taking fertility drugs and with hormone replacement therapy. Slightly decreased risks may be associated with having fallopian tubes ‘tied’ (tubal ligation), taking oral contraceptives, having children and breast feeding.

It is difficult to detect ovarian cancer early – only about 25% of the cancers are found in the easily treatable stage, before they have spread beyond the ovaries. The symptoms of ovarian cancer are subtle and nonspecific. They include abdominal swelling and pain, indigestion, changes in urination and bowel habits, bloating and a feeling of pressure in the pelvis, weight changes and unexplained vaginal bleeding. Since there are many non-cancerous conditions that can also cause these symptoms, it is important to consult your doctor if you are experiencing any symptoms.

Last Review Date: April 28, 2023

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