What you need to know about ovarian cancer


In this article: 

  • Ovarian cancer is a rare cancer that begins in the ovaries. 

  • Gynecologic oncologist Dr. Diana Pearre explains how you can learn about your risk for this cancer and keep an eye on your ovarian health. 

  • Though ovarian cancer is often diagnosed late, it is treatable and curable in many people.  

Ovarian cancer is a rare cancer that affects 1 in 80 people with ovaries. As part of Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month in September, we spoke to Diana Pearre, M.D., a gynecologic oncologist at Providence Roy and Patricia Disney Family Cancer Center to find out what people with ovaries should know about this disease.  

Am I at risk for ovarian cancer? 

While ovarian cancer typically affects post-menopausal people age 60 or older, it can occur at any age. You may be at high risk of developing ovarian cancer if you have a family history of the condition.  

“Certain genetic mutations, like BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, increase your likelihood of getting breast cancer and ovarian cancer,” says Dr. Pearre. “We encourage genetic testing for patients who have a strong family history of ovarian cancer, such as a mother or sister with the condition.” 

Genetic screening tests may be covered by insurance or, if not, have a reasonable out-of-pocket cost. Testing can help you take steps to reduce your risk for ovarian cancer. 

  • You may also be at increased risk of ovarian cancer if: 
  • You have never been pregnant or breastfed. 
  • You are overweight or obese. 
  • You have an inherited predisposition to familiar cancer syndrome 

How can I reduce my ovarian cancer risk? 

You can take steps to reduce your risk for the disease. Dr. Pearre recommends seeing an OB/GYN each year for pelvic exams and talking to your doctor about whether birth control pills can benefit you. 

Oral contraceptives (birth control pills) can help reduce your risk for ovarian cancer by reducing how often your ovaries release an egg (ovulate). Each time you ovulate, you grow more ovary cells. This increases the chances that one of those cells may mutate into cancer. 

You might also talk to your doctor about having your fallopian tubes removed if you are having any pelvic surgery, such as a hysterectomy. New research shows that removing your fallopian tubes, but not your ovaries, can reduce your risk of ovarian cancer by 50% without causing other side effects. 

What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer? 

Ovarian cancers are typically silent, without symptoms. However in some, signs of ovarian cancer may include: 

  • Bloating 
  • Unintentional weight loss 
  • Abnormal bleeding 
  • Pain during intercourse 
  • A feeling of having a swollen belly 
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain 
  • Nausea 
  • Vomiting 
  • A change in bowel habits, such as new constipation or diarrhea 
  • Feeling like you need to pee often 

Many women have these symptoms for other reasons. However, you should always talk to your doctor about new symptoms or problems you are experiencing.  

How is ovarian cancer diagnosed? 

Ovarian cancer is diagnosed with a biopsy however your doctor may initiate a work-up which includes ordering blood tests or imaging tests such as a CT scan.  

What does ovarian cancer treatment include? 

“Even though ovarian cancer is often diagnosed in advanced stages, it is often curable,” says Dr. Pearre. “We treat and can cure most of our patients with surgery, chemotherapy and maintenance oral or intravenous medicines to prevent cancer from coming back.” 

The best way to increase your odds of an ovarian cancer cure is through early detection. By learning about your personal risk of ovarian cancer, seeking out genetic testing if you qualify, and seeing your OB/GYN regularly, you can protect your gynecologic health for years to come. 


Contributing Caregiver 

Diana C. Pearre, M.D., FACOG is a gynecologic oncologist at Providence Roy and Patricia Disney Family Cancer Center. 

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Related resources 

Ovarian cancer awareness month: are you at risk? 

Learn how to prevent gynecologic cancer 

What is genetic and genomic medicine? 

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.