What Causes Ovarian Cancer?

By - July 1, 2019
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Ovarian cancer originates in a woman’s ovaries. The ovaries produce eggs and also the hormones progesterone and estrogen. Ovarian cancer frequently goes without detection until it has spread into the abdomen and pelvis. At such later stages, it is harder to treat. Early stage ovarian cancer is much more likely to be treated successfully.

For most patients, surgery and chemotherapy are the best ways to treat ovarian cancer. (mayoclinic.org)

Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer in the early stage almost never causes symptoms. Advanced stage cancer can cause some symptoms that can be mistaken for less serious conditions. Some of the symptoms of this cancer are:

  • Swelling or bloating in the abdomen
  • Feeling full quickly after you eat
  • Losing weight
  • Pain in the pelvis region
  • Changes in your bowel habits, including constipation
  • Need to urinate often

If you see any of the signs above for an extended period, you should be seen by your doctor. Also, if your family has a history of ovarian cancer, talk to your doctor about the risks you have. He may be able to provide you with a referral to a genetic counselor to talk about testing for some gene mutations that boost your risk of ovarian cancer.

Causes of Ovarian Cancer

The jury is still out on what causes ovarian cancer, but doctors have determined some factors that increase your risk of the disease. Generally, cancer starts when a cell in the body develops mutations in the DNA. The mutations inform the cell to grow and multiply. This leads to the creation of tumors. These abnormal cells continue to live and healthy cells die. They also can invade tissues nearby and break off from the early tumor to spread around the body.

Types of Ovarian Cancer

The kind of cell where the cancer starts tells us the type of ovarian cancer you have. Common ovarian cancer types are:

  • Epithelial: This begins in the thin tissue layer that covers the outside of your ovaries. Almost 90% of all ovarian cancers are of this type.
  • Stromal: Start in the ovarian tissue that has cells that produce hormones. These tumors are often diagnosed early on, with about 7% of ovarian tumors of this variety.
  • Germ cell: These start in the cells that produce eggs. This is a very rare ovarian cancer that happens in young women.

Ovarian Risk Factors

Some of the factors that boost your risk of getting ovarian cancer are:

  • Being older: Ovarian cancer can happen at any age but is common in women between the ages of 50 and 60.
  • Gene mutations that are inherited: Some ovarian cancers are due to gene mutations that you inherit from your mother and father. The genes that are believed to boost the risk of ovarian cancer are known as breast cancer gene 1 and breast cancer gene 2. These genes also make it more likely you will get breast cancer.
  • Ovarian cancer family history: People who have two or more direct relatives with the disease have a higher chance of getting this cancer.
  • Estrogen hormone replacement therapy: This is most likely when used in the long term and with larger doses.
  • Your age when menstruation started and ended: Starting menstruation at an early age or starting menopause at a later age can boost the chances of getting ovarian cancer.

How to Prevent Ovarian Cancer

There is no absolute, guaranteed way to avoid getting ovarian cancer, but there are ways to drop the risk:

  • Take birth control pills: Ask your medical professional if birth control pills could be a good choice for you. Women who use birth control pills may have a lower chance of getting ovarian cancer. But taking birth control pills has risks of its own, so talk to your doctor about the benefits compared to the risks.
  • Talk about risk factors with your doctor: If your family has a history of ovarian or breast cancer, talk about this with your medical professional. Your doctor can decide what this means for your risk of getting cancer. For some people, your doctor could have you talk to a genetic counselor who can help you determine if you should have genetic testing.

Diagnosis for Ovarian Cancer

Some of the ways that ovarian cancer is diagnosed include:

  • Pelvic examination: During this exam, your physician will insert gloved fingers into the vagina and press a hand on the abdomen to feel the various pelvic organs. The doctor also will look at your vagina and cervix.
  • Imaging tests: Your doctor may order an ultrasound or CT scan of the abdomen and pelvis. This can help to show the size, shape and structure of the ovaries.
  • Blood test: These may include organ function tests that can check your overall level of health. Your doctor could also check your blood for any markers of tumor that indicate you could have ovarian cancer. For instance, cancer antigen 125 can see a protein that is frequently found on the surface of cancer cells of the ovaries. These tests will not tell your doctor if you have this cancer, but it could provide clues about your prognosis and diagnosis.
  • Surgery: Your doctor may not be able to be certain about your diagnosis until you have surgery, take out an ovary and check it if there are signs of cancer.

Treatments for Ovarian Cancer

Most treatment options for ovarian cancer include a mix of surgery and chemotherapy.


Some of the common surgery options are:

  • Removing a single ovary: For cancer in the early stages that has not spread, taking out one ovary and fallopian tube may be all that is necessary.
  • Removing both ovaries: If you have cancer in both, but you have no signs of cancer spreading, your surgeon may opt to take out both ovaries and fallopian tubes.
  • Remove both ovaries and uterus: If your cancer has spread, your surgeon may want to remove the ovaries, fallopian tubes and uterus.
  • Advanced cancer: If it is more advanced, you may need chemotherapy after surgery.


This is an advanced cancer drug treatment that uses chemicals to kill cancer cells. These drugs may be injected into a vein or taken orally. In some cases, the drugs can be injected into the abdomen. Chemotherapy may be used after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells.

Targeted Therapy

This uses drugs that go after specific vulnerabilities that are in your cancer cells. They often are used for ovarian cancer that comes back after the first treatment. Your physician may test your cancer cells to see which type of targeted therapy may have the best effect on your cancer.


Ovarian Cancer Overview. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/ovarian-cancer/symptoms-causes/syc-20375941

Melinda J.
Melinda J.

Editor-in-Chief of TalcumPowderSafety. Since 1999, she's worked across a multitude of areas of consumer protection including defective products, environmental issues, identity theft, predatory lending and more.

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