Home Page
Consumers' Section

E-mail this page   Printable View

Ovarian Cancer: Symptoms and Risk Factors

Ovarian cancer is the second most common gynecologic cancer (after cervical cancer) and the leading cause of death from gynecologic cancer. It generally affects women 40 to 65 years of age.

Several types of cancer can occur in the ovaries. The most common types occur when cells within the ovaries become cancerous, which may be related to excessive estrogen stimulation. In addition, advanced cancers of the breast and abdomen commonly spread to the ovaries.

In the early stages of ovarian cancer, the symptoms are subtle and may be overlooked. Indeed, most women will not seek medical attention, and may attribute symptoms to their menstrual cycle. As a result, most cases are advanced, and may be incurable, by the time of diagnosis.


  • Fatigue
  • Poor appetite or poor digestion
  • Lower abdominal discomfort (e.g., pressure, swelling, cramps, bloating, gas)
  • Low–back pain
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Frequent urination
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Irregular or abnormal vaginal bleeding
  • Painful sexual intercourse
  • Swelling (edema) of the lower extremities

Risk Factors

  • Age: Most ovarian cancers occur in women over 50 years, with the highest risk in those over 60.
  • Family history: Women who have relatives with ovarian cancer have a three times increased risk. Having many affected relatives raises the risk further.
  • BRCA gene mutation: Women with a mutation of the breast cancer susceptibility genes (BRCA1 or BRCA2) have a 25 percent to 45 percent risk of ovarian cancer during their lifetimes.
  • Race: White women are affected more often than black women.
  • Previous cancer: Women with a history of breast or colon cancer may have an increased risk.
  • Absence of pregnancies or infertility
  • Endometriosis
  • Diet: See Nutritional Considerations below.
  • Other: Estrogen replacement therapy, smoking, and obesity may be risk factors, though further study is necessary.
  • Factors that reduce the risk include breast–feeding, previous pregnancy (and especially multiple pregnancies), use of birth control pills, tubal ligation surgery, and hysterectomy.


Ovarian Cancer: Diagnosis and Treatment >>