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Conditions InDepth: Ovarian Cancer
by Ricker Polsdorfer, MD and Michael Jubinville, MPH
Cancer is a disease in which cells grow in an abnormal way. Normally, the cells divide in a controlled manner to replace old or damaged cells. If cells keep dividing when new cells are not needed, a mass of tissue called a tumor forms.
Not all tumors are cancer, those that are cancer are called malignant. Cancer tumors invade and damage tissue around them. The cancer cells can also enter the lymph and blood streams, spreading to other parts of the body. Ovarian cancer is the development of malignant cells in one or both ovaries.
Normal Anatomy and the Development of Ovarian Cancer
The ovaries are part of the female reproductive system. They are two small, oval-shaped organs found inside the pelvic region on each side of the uterus. The main functions of the ovaries are to produce eggs and hormones (estrogen and progesterone) that control sexual development, reproduction, ovulation, and the menstrual cycle. As part of the menstruation cycle, ovarian cells shed in the peritoneum, a double-layered, fluid-filled membrane that surrounds and supports the abdominal cavity.
Each ovary is surrounded by a capsule and has 3 different types of cells:
Cell division and growth is a normal process in the body to replace old or damaged cells. Changes in hormones, which may or may not be affected by genetic abnormalities, cause changes in ovarian cells. These changes can alter the DNA of the cells which tells them when to grow and when to stop. Normally the cells only grow enough to replace old or damaged cells but damaged DNA may cause the abnormal growth of cells, known as cancer.
Ovarian cancer can start anywhere in the ovarian tissue, but the most common place is in the epithelial cells that cover the ovary. Ovarian cancer can spread directly to nearby structures in the abdominal cavity. The cancer can also spread to adjacent lymph nodes or blood vessels, which can carry cancer cells to other areas of the body. The most common sites for ovarian cancer to spread outside of the abdomen are to lymph nodes in other parts of the body, lungs, liver, and bones.
Types of Ovarian Cancer
Ovarian cancer is characterized by where tumors start, where they grow, and their appearance under a microscope. Ovarian cancer types include:
What are the risk factors for ovarian cancer?
What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?
How is ovarian cancer diagnosed?
What are the treatments for ovarian cancer?
Are there screening tests for ovarian cancer?
How can I reduce my risk of ovarian cancer?
What questions should I ask my doctor?
What is it like to live with ovarian cancer?
Where can I get more information about ovarian cancer?
General information about ovarian epithelial, fallopian tube, and primary peritoneal cancer. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/ovarian/patient/ovarian-epithelial-treatment-pdq. Updated July 14, 2016. Accessed October 27, 2016.
Ovarian cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at:
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Accessed October 27, 2016.
Ovarian cancer. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T900705/Ovarian-cancer. Updated May 6, 2016. Accessed October 27, 2016.
Ovarian cancer. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at:
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Updated May 2013. Accessed October 27, 2016.
Last reviewed December 2015 by Mohei Abouzied, MD
Last Updated: 10/27/2016
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