What Are the Risks and Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer?

Find out if you are at risk for this often misunderstood women’s cancer and what its symptoms are.

Though ovarian cancer accounts for only three percent of all women’s cancers, 22,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with it every year. Researchers at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center are working to better understand the causes of ovarian cancer so they can develop more effective diagnostics and treatments.

What is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer affects women, most often after the age of 55. The cancer starts in a woman’s ovaries, where her eggs are produced, and spreads. While benign ovarian tumors do occur, they are rarely fatal and often can be removed with no harmful side effects.

However, when epithelial tumors, called carcinomas, form in the ovaries, they are much more serious, causing 85 to 90 percent of ovarian cancers. These cancers can spread to other organs or the lining of the abdomen and pelvis.

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Risk factors

Though the reason for cancer occurring in the ovaries is unknown, there are a variety of risk factors that may contribute to its development, including:

  • age
  • family history
  • infertility and/or fertility treatment
  • breast cancer
  • weight
  • endometriosis
  • hormone replacement therapy

There also is a link between a woman’s number of lifetime ovulations and the risk of ovarian cancer. Women who have never been on the contraceptive pill, who started menstrual cycles at an early age or whose menopause started later than average are at a higher risk. On the contrary, the more times a woman becomes pregnant, the lower her risk.


Many women ignore the early signs of ovarian cancer, as they can be minor or easily attributed to something else. As a result, only 19 percent of ovarian cancers are diagnosed in the early stages, when they are most treatable.

Symptoms include:

  • bloating
  • abdominal or pelvic pain
  • feeling full very quickly while eating, or having difficulty eating
  • upset stomach, heartburn, constipation, nausea or vomiting
  • the need to urinate more frequently or urgently
  • changes in menstruation

It is important to see your doctor if any of these symptoms arise and last for two weeks or longer.

If you need to check your symptoms or want to discuss your risk factors, request an appointment with an expert physician at USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center or call (800) USC-CARE.