According to Cancer Research UK, around 7,500 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer every year in the UK – making it the sixth most common cancer in women. While over 1,000 young women develop ovarian cancer each year, the majority of cases occur in women over 50.

While these stats can be scary, the good news is that if diagnosed at its earliest stage, around nine in 10 women will survive the disease. So, learning about possible symptoms to look out for can go a long way. in helping to reduce its impact.

Here we’ll cover everything you need to know about ovarian cancer, including symptoms, risk, prevention, and treatment.

What is ovarian cancer?

What is ovarian cancer?

The ovaries are two small, almond-shaped organs located on each side of the uterus that are responsible for producing female reproductive eggs. 

Ovarian cancer occurs when abnormal cells begin to grow in the ovaries. If not caught early, these cells can eventually form a growth (tumour) and spread to other areas of the body.

Ovarian cancer can occur in several different parts of the ovary, including the ovary’s germ cells (cells that become eggs), epithelial (outer layer of the ovary), or stromal cells (cells that make up the substance of the ovary).

The diagram below shows how ovarian cancer can progress if left untreated.

Stages of ovarian cancer

What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?

What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?

Symptoms of ovarian cancer are usually persistent and frequent – usually occurring more than 12 times each month. 

According to the NHS, some of the most common symptoms of ovarian cancer include:

  • Feeling full quickly

  • Loss of appetite

  • Persistent bloating or an increase in the size of your abdomen

  • Pain in your tummy or lower abdomen that doesn’t go away

  • Needing to urinate more often.

These symptoms are likely to begin suddenly and will feel different to normal digestion or menstrual discomfort.

Other symptoms of ovarian cancer can include:

  • Unexplained tiredness

  • Lower back pain

  • Indigestion

  • Acne

  • Vaginal bleeding

  • Pain during intercourse

  • Extreme fatigue

  • Unexplained weight loss or weight gain

  • Experiencing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, such as diarrhoea or constipation – especially if this starts after the age of 50.

Note: Many of these symptoms can also be caused by other less serious conditions too, but it’s always best to get yourself checked by your doctor.

What causes ovarian cancer?

What causes ovarian cancer?

It’s still unclear exactly what causes ovarian cancer, but some factors may increase your risk. These include…


While women of any age can get ovarian cancer, as with most cancers, the risk increases as you get older. 

According to Target Ovarian Cancer, most cases of ovarian cancer occur in women who had already gone through the menopause – with over half of cases diagnosed in women over 65.


Research shows that between 5-15% of ovarian cancers are caused by genetics. Those whose mother or sister have been affected by ovarian cancer are around three times more at risk.

Inherited genes that increase the risk of ovarian cancer include faulty versions of BRCA1 and BRCA2, as well as Lynch syndrome (an inherited cancer syndrome associated with predisposition to different cancer types).

It’s important to speak to your GP if you’re concerned about your family history of ovarian cancer. They’ll be able to advise you on whether referral to a genetics service is necessary.

Previous cancer

Anyone previously diagnosed with breast cancer has an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. 

This risk is higher in women diagnosed with breast cancer at a younger age, and those with oestrogen receptor negative (ER negative) breast cancer.

Using hormone replacement (HRT) therapy

Using HRT after menopause can increase the risk of ovarian cancer. In the UK, 4% of ovarian cancer cases are linked to HRT use. 

However, it’s important to note that the increase in risk is small, and many women find that HRT is helpful for treating their menopausal symptoms. 

You can seek further guidance from your GP. You may also find our article, Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) explained, useful.

Being overweight

Research shows that overweight adults have a 16% increased risk of developing ovarian cancer, and obese adults have a 30% increased risk.

Certain medical conditions

Studies show that women with endometriosis or diabetes have an increased risk of ovarian cancer. Those who use insulin may have a higher risk, too.


Smoking is the largest preventable cause of cancer in the UK. 

This study revealed that women who smoked were three times more likely to develop mucinous ovarian cancer (a rare subtype) than those who didn’t smoke.

Exposure to asbestos

Asbestos is a heat and fire-resistant insulating material. It’s made up of tiny fibres which you can breathe in when in close contact.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies asbestos as a cause of ovarian cancer. Luckily, its use was banned in the UK in the late 1990s.

How is ovarian cancer diagnosed?

How is ovarian cancer diagnosed?

It’s important to visit your GP if you have symptoms of ovarian cancer. They’ll examine you and refer you for tests or to see a specialist if necessary.

If you have cancer, further tests will be used to find out its size and whether it’s spread. 

There’s currently no national screening programme for ovarian cancer in the UK because there isn’t a test that reliably identifies the disease at an early stage. 

Some of the tests used to diagnose ovarian cancer and determine its stage include blood tests, ultrasound scans, CT scans, image guided biopsies, laprascopy (an operation to look inside your abdomen), and removal of abdominal fluid to check for cancer cells.

You can find more information on what these tests involve and at what stage they’re used on the Cancer Research UK website.

Can ovarian cancer be prevented?

Can ovarian cancer be prevented?

There’s currently no known way to prevent ovarian cancer. However, there are a few things that may lower your risk. These include…

  • Using birth control pills for five years or more. Studies show that the risk of ovarian cancer is estimated to be 50% lower in women who have taken birth control pills for five years or longer. The reduction in risk is thought to last for 10 years after you stop taking the pill.
  • Gynecologic surgery. Having tubal ligation (where your tubes are tied), both ovaries removed, or a hysterectomy (an operation to remove the uterus and sometimes the cervix) may reduce the risk of developing certain types of ovarian cancer.

  • Giving birth and breastfeeding. A woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer decreases each time she gives birth. Breastfeeding also reduces the risk.

    Research shows that each month of breastfeeding is associated with a 2% decrease in ovarian cancer risk.

    This lowered risk may be because you don’t ovulate while pregnant or breastfeeding. The fewer times you ovulate in your lifetime, the lower your risk of ovarian cancer.

Other lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking and maintaining a healthy weight can also reduce your risk of ovarian cancer.

If you’re concerned about your risk of ovarian cancer, it’s worth discussing this with your doctor. They’ll be able to accurately determine your risk level and suggest a preventative strategy that’s appropriate for you.

How is ovarian cancer treated?

How is ovarian cancer treated?

Treatment of ovarian cancer largely depends on the type and stage of cancer.

We’ll cover some of the options below.

1. Surgery for ovarian cancer

Surgery can be used to confirm diagnosis, the stage of cancer, and to remove the cancer. 

During surgery, your surgeon will aim to remove all cancerous tissue and may take a biopsy to see if – and how far – the cancer has spread beyond the ovaries. For those who don’t want to get pregnant or are past childbearing age, the aim is usually to remove as much cancer as possible, which can include removal of the uterus, both ovaries, fallopian tubes, omentum, and the affected surrounding tissue.

The amount of surgery needed will also depend on the stage of cancer. For example, if it’s spread to other parts of your body, then further surgery – such as removing parts of the bowel – may be necessary.

For more information, you might want to have a read of this guide to different types of ovarian cancer surgery on the Ovarian Cancer Action website.

2. Chemotherapy for ovarian cancer

Chemotherapy is a medicine that kills cancer cells. It can be given before or after surgery, or may be used on its own.

Chemotherapy can be provided intravenously (via veins) or through the abdomen (known as intraperitoneal treatment). 

Cancer Research UK has more information on types of chemotherapy for ovarian cancer.

3. Radiotherapy for ovarian cancer

Radiotherapy uses high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells. 

It’s not used that often to treat ovarian cancer, but you may receive radiotherapy if your cancer is advanced, alongside surgery and chemotherapy.

You can read more about having radiotherapy for ovarian cancer on Cancer Research UK’s website.

4. Targeted therapies for ovarian cancer

Targeted therapies are medicines designed to only target genetic changes that help cancer cells to survive and grow. 

This can be an option for advanced ovarian cancer that has come back. 

Ovarian Cancer Action has more information on targeted therapy for ovarian cancer.

5. Hormone therapy for ovarian cancer

Some types of ovarian cancer require the hormone oestrogen to grow. Hormone treatments can be used to block the production of oestrogen to prevent some cancers from growing. 

These medicines are rarely used, however, your doctor will tell you if hormone treatment is right for you.

You can read up on hormone therapy for ovarian cancer on Ovarian Cancer Action’s website.

Help and support for those affected by ovarian cancer

Help and support for those affected by ovarian cancer

If you’ve been affected by ovarian cancer or would like to find out more, there are also a number of national cancer charities that offer helpful guidance, support, and information. 

These include:

  • Target Ovarian Cancer – the UK’s leading ovarian cancer charity. Offers services including a support line and online community where you can access digital information, support events, and speak to others affected by ovarian cancer.

  • Macmillan Cancer Support – information and support services for anyone affected by cancer, including an online community and opportunities to ask experts questions.

  • Cancer Research UK – information and support services including ‘ask a nurse’ service and an online chat forum for anyone affected by cancer.

  • Ovacome – UK ovarian cancer support charity providing information and guidance, and resources including a symptom diary and an online forum where you can connect with others.

  • The Eve Appeal – leading UK national charity funding research and raising awareness of the five gynaecological cancers: ovarian, womb, cervical, vulval, and vaginal.

  • Maggie’s Centres – offers practical, emotional, and social support for anyone affected by cancer including support groups where you can connect with others.

  • Marie Curie – provides care and support to anyone affected by a terminal illness.

Final thoughts…

Ovarian cancer is the sixth most common cancer in women in the UK. 

While its cause is not fully understood, understanding the risk factors and early warning signs can go a long way in helping to reduce its impact. 

Our article, 11 important health checks, has more information about screening tests recommended for over 50s, including those for conditions such as prostate cancer, bowel cancer, and breast cancer.