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About ovarian cancer

What is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer is an umbrella term for many unique cancers that affect similar parts of the body. Depending on where the cancer is found, it may also be referred to as fallopian tube or peritoneal cancer.

Ovarian cancer occurs when cells grow abnormally and multiply to form a mass (tumour). The cancer can spread to other parts of the body (metastasize) and cause damage to important body functions.

Ovaries, fallopian tubes, peritoneum

The ovaries are a pair of organs located on each side of the uterus that produce female sex hormones and eggs; the fallopian tubes are thin tubes that transport eggs from the ovaries to the uterus, and the peritoneum is the name given to the internal lining of the abdomen.

gynae diagram

How common is ovarian cancer?

Every day, someone in New Zealand is told they have ovarian cancer.

Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common type of women’s cancer and the fifth most common cause of cancer death in women; more people die from ovarian cancer in New Zealand than from cervical, uterine, vulval and vaginal cancer combined.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of ovarian cancer are non-specific and can include:

  • Bloating
  • Eating less and feeling fuller
  • Abdominal/pelvic/back pain
  • Needing to pee more or urgently
  • Bowel habit changes
  • Fatigue
  • Indigestion
  • Painful intercourse
  • Unexplained weight change
  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge

If you experience any of these symptoms for longer than four weeks, let your doctor know.

Most of the time, these symptoms won’t be the result of ovarian cancer, but it is important to talk to your doctor, especially if your symptoms are new, unusual or getting worse.

What are the risk factors?

The main risk factor for ovarian cancer is a family or personal history of breast, ovarian or bowel cancer; having history with any of these cancers increases the chance you will carry an inheritable gene mutation that can significantly increase your risk of ovarian cancer.

Inheritable genetic mutations cause 10% to 15% of ovarian cancers.

Can ovarian cancer be prevented?

Most ovarian cancer is not preventable, but if you have an inherited genetic risk factor or if you need gynaecological or abdominal surgery for another reason, there may be actions you can take to reduce your chance of getting ovarian cancer.

Find out more about risk factors and prevention.

How is ovarian cancer diagnosed?

Investigations for ovarian cancer include a CA-125 blood test and ultrasound. If the results are abnormal, you may require further scans and other tests, such as a biopsy or operation to determine the diagnosis.

Find out more about diagnosis and testing.

What are the stages of ovarian cancer?

Stages refers to the spread of ovarian cancer when someone is diagnosed.

  • Stage 1 means the cancer is contained within one or both ovaries
  • Stage 2 means the cancer has spread to the uterus or other nearby organs
  • Stage 3 means the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes or abdominal lining
  • Stage 4 means the cancer has spread to distant organs, such as the lungs or liver

Ovarian cancer can be difficult to detect at stage 1 because it can spread before causing symptoms. Most people get diagnosed when their cancer is stage 3.

graph showing frequency of types of ovarian cancer. HGSOC accounts for over 60% of ovarian cancer

What are the different types of ovarian cancer?

There are over 30 different types of ovarian cancer. Each type is a unique cancer that requires individualised treatment. The most common type is called high-grade serous. Two in three people diagnosed with ovarian cancer have this type. The other types are rare. One in three people with ovarian cancer is diagnosed with a rare type such as low-grade serous, clear cell or germ cell.

Find out more about:

How is ovarian cancer treated?

Treatment depends on the stage (spread) and type of ovarian cancer.

Possible treatments include:

  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Targeted drug treatments
  • Radiation
  • Clinical trial

The core essential treatments for ovarian cancer are funded in New Zealand, but overall, there are less funded treatment options and clinical trials compared to both Australia and the United Kingdom.

Does ovarian cancer come back after treatment?

Even if the surgeon removes all the cancer they can see, tiny cancer cells can remain. In an ideal world, medical treatment would kill all the remaining cancer cells, but this often isn’t the case with current treatments.

Overall, one quarter of people with stage 1 and 2 ovarian cancer and at least 80% of people with stage 3 and 4 ovarian cancer will have their cancer come back after treatment; this is called a recurrence. Sometimes, the cancer never goes away and continues to grow; this is called progression.

If ovarian cancer returns or continues to grow after treatment, unfortunately, it is not usually curable. However, there may still be treatments that can shrink the cancer or slow its growth.

Survival rates

Generally speaking, the overall five-year survival rate for ovarian cancer in New Zealand is 36%; this means that for every 100 people diagnosed, 36 will still be alive at least five years after their diagnosis.

The five-year survival rate for different stages of ovarian cancer is:

  • Stage 1 – 95% (95 people out of 100 will still be alive after five years)
  • Stage 2 – 70% (70 people out of 100 will still be alive after five years)
  • Stage 3 – 25% (25 people out of 100 will still be alive after five years)
  • Stage 4 – 15% (15 people out of 100 will still be alive after five years)

Source: Cancer Research UK

These are general statistics that look at what happened to a large number of people in the past.

How long a specific individual with ovarian cancer lives (prognosis) depends on many factors, including how they were diagnosed, the stage and type of ovarian cancer (some types of ovarian cancer have good survival even if advanced) and whether all visible cancer was able to be removed with surgery.

Further information

Note: this content has been reviewed by a gynaecological cancer specialist in New Zealand. Information is provided for general use and should not be a substitute for professional medical advice.

Last reviewed: 16 January 2024