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What Is Ovarian Cancer?

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

Cancer happens when cells in the body change (mutate) and start to grow 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. 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 pelvis. They're part of the reproductive system.

The ovaries are on either side of the uterus (the organ that holds the baby when a woman is pregnant). Ovaries hold and release the eggs that, when joined 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 cancer:

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

  • Germ cell tumors. These start in the cells inside the ovary that make the 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. These start in 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 decide on the treatment plan that's best for you. Treatment choices may include:

  • Surgery is often done to remove the ovary with cancer or both the ovaries, along with nearby tissue and organs. Sometimes the uterus is removed (hysterectomy). If the cancer has spread, the surgeon will try to remove as much of it as possible. This is called debulking surgery.

  • Chemotherapy uses strong medicines to kill cancer cells. Chemo is often used along with surgery.

  • Targeted therapy might be used for more advanced ovarian cancer. These drugs target changes in the cancer cells to kill them while sparing normal cells.

  • Hormone therapy can help treat stromal tumors. It blocks the hormones that help these tumors grow.

  • Radiation therapy is rarely used to treat ovarian cancer. It uses focused rays of energy to kill cancer cells.

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