What Is Ovarian Cancer?

Outline of female pelvis showing uterus, cervix, and vagina.

Cancer happens when cells in the body begin changing and multiplying out of control. These cells can form lumps of tissue called tumors. Cancer that starts in the ovaries is called ovarian cancer. Ovarian cancer can spread from the ovaries to other parts of the body. This spread is called metastasis. In general, the more cancer spreads, the harder it is to treat.

Since only women have ovaries, only women can get this kind of cancer. 

Understanding the ovaries

The ovaries are a pair of walnut-sized organs in a woman's pelvic area. They are located on either side of the uterus (the organ that holds the baby when a woman is pregnant). Ovaries keep and release the eggs that, when combined with a man's sperm, can grow into a baby. The ovaries also make the female hormones progesterone and estrogen.

When a woman reaches menopause (the "change of life"), her ovaries stop releasing eggs and stop making certain hormones. 

When ovarian cancer forms

There are 3 different types of ovarian tumors:

  • Epithelial tumors form in the cells that cover the outer surface of the ovaries. This is the most common type of ovarian cancer.

  • Germ cell tumors form in the cells inside the ovary that produce eggs. These rare tumors are most common in women in their teens and early twenties. There are different subtypes of germ cell tumors. 

  • Stromal tumors grow from the support cells that hold the ovaries together and make female hormones. This is a rare form of ovarian cancer.

Treatment choices for ovarian cancer

You and your healthcare provider will discuss a treatment plan that's best for your needs. Treatment choices may include:

  • Surgery to remove the ovary with cancer or both the ovaries and nearby tissue and organs.

  • Chemotherapy, which uses strong medicines to kill cancer cells. This treatment is often used along with surgery.

  • Radiation therapy, which uses directed rays of energy to kill cancer cells, is sometimes used in the treatment of ovarian cancer. Radiation therapy is not a common main treatment for ovarian cancer.