Ovarian cancer can be difficult to diagnose early because the symptoms are the same as many common conditions.

What is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer begins in the ovary, part of the female reproductive system that makes the eggs (ova) and female hormones.

There are two ovaries, one on each side of the womb (uterus).

Like the rest of your body, the ovary is made up of tiny 'building blocks' called cells.

Ovarian cancer begins when cells in one or both of the ovaries grow abnormally. Sometimes cancer can form in the fallopian tube and spread to the ovary.

Cancer is a disease of the body's cells. It starts in our genes. Our bodies are constantly making new cells, a process controlled by certain genes. Cancers are caused by damage to these genes. As the damaged cells replicate a lump or tumour is formed. 

Tumours can be:

  • Benign - not cancerous. These do not spread to other parts of the body.
  • Malignant - cancerous


Types of ovarian cancer

There are many types of ovarian cancer, the three main types are:

  • epithelial - the most common type
  • germ cell sex cord stromal cell
  • borderline tumours

The ovaries are part of the female reproductive system. They are about the size of almonds, one on each side of the uterus and close to the fallopian tubes' ends.

The ovaries make the female hormones oestrogen and progesterone. They also produce eggs which travel through the fallopian tubes to the uterus.

When a woman gets older and goes through her menopause, the ovaries stop releasing eggs and make far fewer hormones.

Ovarian cancer symptoms

The symptoms of ovarian cancer are often not obvious and can be confused with other non-cancerous conditions.

Signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer may include:

  • a swollen or bloated tummy (abdomen)
  • always feeling full
  • discomfort, pressure, or pain in the tummy or pelvic area
  • change in bowel habits (constipation or diarrhoea)
  • feeling very tired (fatigue)
  • kidney or bladder problems, such as needing to pee more often
  • abnormal vaginal bleeding
  • weight changes for no reason

Often there are no signs of early-stage ovarian cancer.

Having these symptoms does not mean you have ovarian cancer, but it is important to get any changes checked by your doctor.

Tips for talking to your doctor

  • make a list of what you are feeling and how often it happens, including as much detail as possible
  • think about your family/whānau history of cancer and tell your doctor
  • go back to your doctor if you don't feel better, even if tests show you don't have a problem - you can ask for a second opinion if you want one 
  • take a family/whānau member or friend with you to the appointment for support

What causes ovarian cancer?

Like many types of cancer, we don’t always know why people get ovarian cancer, but some things increase your risk.

Risk factors for ovarian cancer include:

  • having no or few pregnancies
  • tobacco use (e.g. smoking)
  • being overweight or eating a high-fat diet
  • a family/whānau history of cancers of the ovary, bowel, breast and lining of the uterus

Some types of ovarian cancer may be linked with a family history of cancers of the ovary, bowel, breast and lining of the uterus.

A small number of ovarian cancers are caused by inheriting an altered gene from a parent.

If there are other people in your family with ovarian, breast, bowel or uterine cancer, you should discuss this with your doctor.

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Last updated: December 22, 2022