Ovarian Cancer & Fallopian Tube Cancer | Symptoms & Signs | MedStar Health

What is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer develops when abnormal cells grow and multiply uncontrollably in the ovaries. The ovaries play an essential role in the female reproductive system. Located on each side of the uterus, they produce eggs until menopause. They're also the body's primary source of estrogen and progesterone, which help regulate menstruation, pregnancy, and several characteristics of the female body, such as body hair and breast growth.

In addition to the ovaries, cancer can also begin in the fallopian tubes (tubal cancer), which connect both ovaries to the uterus. Rarely, it can also start in the peritoneum, a thin layer of tissue that lines the abdominal cavity. Because fallopian tube and peritoneum cancers often mimic symptoms of ovarian cancer, they are treated similarly. Ovarian cancer & fallopian tube cancer services are available throughout the Washington D.C., Baltimore, Maryland, and Virginia areas.

Ovarian cancer symptoms and risk factors

What are the signs of ovarian cancer?

Symptoms are often vague and can be confused with other, more common conditions, such as an ovarian cyst pain. And many women with the disease don't experience any ovarian cancer symptoms at all. However, it's important to pay attention to anything that may be unusual for you and persists for more than a few weeks, such as:

  • Abdominal bloating or swelling
  • Change in menstrual cycles
  • Constipation, gas, or indigestion
  • Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Sense of pelvic heaviness
  • Trouble with or frequent urination
  • Unexplained back pain that worsens over time
  • Vaginal bleeding between periods
  • Vague lower abdominal discomfort
  • Weight gain or loss

Having any of these symptoms doesn't mean you have cancer, but it's important to discuss them with a doctor who can determine the underlying cause.

Learn More About Ovarian Cancer Symptoms

What causes ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer is one of the most common cancers among women, and it causes more deaths than any other type of gynecologic cancer. The cause is unknown, but the risk of developing this cancer appears to be affected by several factors, including:

  • Children: The more children a woman has and the earlier in life she gives birth, the lower her risk
  • Genetics: Certain genetic mutations (BRCA1 and BRCA2) are linked to a small number of cases
  • Personal or family history: Women with a personal or family history of ovarian, colorectal, or breast cancer may have an increased risk
  • Age: Older women are at the highest risk. The majority of deaths occur in women ages 55 and older. About 25 percent of deaths occur in women between ages 35 and 54
  • Weight: Women with a body mass index (BMI) over 30 may have an increased risk of developing various cancers, including ovarian cancer
  • Hormonal therapy: Research suggests birth control pills decrease risk while hormone therapies after menopause may increase risk

Screening and prevention

Can I prevent this type of cancer?

There is no definitive way to prevent ovarian cancer or cancer in the fallopian tubes or peritoneum. However, knowing your risk level may help you make informed decisions about prevention and strategies that may help you lower your risk of the disease or help with early detection. For example, you may have an increased risk of ovarian cancer if you have:

  • A personal or family history of breast, colon, or ovarian cancer
  • Inherited certain genetic mutations, such as the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes
  • A hereditary cancer syndrome (Lynch syndrome)

At MedStar Health, our board-certified genetic counselors are skilled at helping women understand their genetic predispositions to developing these types of cancers. From genetic testing to prevention strategies, we can help you understand the pros and cons of your cancer risk management options.

Ovarian cancer diagnosis

How is ovarian cancer diagnosed?

If you have a suspected ovarian mass, your doctor will ask questions about your symptoms, health, and family medical history. They may also perform one or more of the following tests to determine your diagnosis and stage (extent of the disease).

  • Pelvic exam: Your doctor will examine your lower abdomen to feel for lumps or any other abnormalities on either side of your uterus. An ovarian mass can be cancerous or non-cancerous (benign), such as an ovarian cyst.
  • Imaging tests: You may undergo various imaging tests, such as an ultrasound pelvic ultrasound, computed tomography (CT) scan, or MRI.
  • Biopsy: There are several different ways your doctor may remove a sample of suspicious tissue for further analysis under a microscope. In some cases, a biopsy can be performed in your OB/GYN office using fine needle aspiration. Other times, a biopsy is collected during surgery.
  • Blood test: Ovarian cancer cells make a protein called CA-125. While the test itself doesn't detect ovarian cancer, your doctor may use a blood test to measure your CA-125 levels to inform your treatment options if you have ovarian cancer that returns.
  • Genetic testing: Because certain cases of ovarian cancer are linked to inherited genetics, your doctor may recommend meeting with a genetic counselor. They can help you determine if testing for hereditary cancer genes would benefit you and your immediate family members.


Types of ovarian cancer

There are several types of ovarian tumors, named for the cells where the cancer starts. These include:

  • Epithelial cell tumors: Epithelial ovarian cancer begins in the cells that line the surface of the ovary (epithelium tissue). It's the most common type of ovarian cancer.
  • Germ cell tumors: Rarely, cancer can develop in the egg-producing cells in the ovary.
  • Stromal cell tumors: This uncommon type of cancer grows in the connective tissue responsible for producing hormones in the ovary.

In addition, you may hear fallopian tube cancer or primary peritoneal cancer grouped with ovarian cancer, as these diseases are all generally treated the same way.

What are the ovarian cancer stages?

As part of an ovarian cancer diagnosis, staging helps to determine how much cancer is present and if it has spread throughout the body. Ovarian cancer stages range from Stage 1 (early cancer) through Stage 4 (advanced cancer). As a general rule, the higher the stage, the more the disease has spread. Whatever type or stage of your disease, your MedStar Health cancer team will personalize a treatment plan that considers all of your best options.

Ovarian cancer treatment

At MedStar Health, your care involves the expertise of multiple experts with different specializations. Treatment will vary based on several factors, such as the type and stage of your ovarian cancer, as well as your overall health, goals, and wishes. Each week, our multidisciplinary team meets to discuss recommendations for our patients. To ensure your best possible outcome, these conversations involve input from gynecologic oncologists, radiation and medical oncologists, pathologists, radiologists, and others who will walk alongside you in your journey with cancer.

Many patients undergo a combination of ovarian cancer surgery and chemotherapy, while other women benefit from additional therapies, such as radiation or immunotherapy. We’re also dedicated to caring for your emotional needs, which is why our patients have access to comprehensive support services designed to help them fully recover during and after treatment.

Learn More About Ovarian Cancer Treatment

Looking for expert cancer care

With multiple locations throughout the region, patients have access to many of the nation’s renowned cancer specialists offering high-quality care, second opinions, and a chance for better outcomes close to where they live and work. Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, one of the nation’s comprehensive cancer centers designated by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), serves as the research engine allowing patients access to clinical trials that often lead to breakthroughs in cancer care.

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