Ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in the ovaries.

The ovaries

The ovaries are two oval-shaped organs that form part of the female reproductive system. Since your daughter started having her period, her ovaries have been producing an egg every month. 

The ovaries also produce the female hormones, oestrogen and progesterone, which control the menstrual cycle.

Types of ovarian cancers

There are a number of different types of ovarian cancer, but young women are most commonly diagnosed with germ cell tumours. These are also known as ‘ovarian teratomas’ and are cancers that start in the egg-producing cells of the ovaries. Depending on the type, one or both ovaries may be affected.

The information on this page refers to germ cell tumours. If your daughter has been diagnosed with a different type of ovarian cancer, talk to the specialist for more information about your daughter's cancer and its treatment.

Who does it affect?

There are two types of germ cell tumours that are diagnosed in women:

  • Mature teratomas (sometimes called ‘dermoid cysts): these are usually diagnosed in women who are having periods (from teens to people in their forties) and are non-cancerous
  • Immature teratomas: these are more commonly diagnosed in young women up to their early 20s. They are called ‘immature’ because the cancer cells are at a very early stage of their development.

What are the symptoms?
How is it diagnosed?
How is it treated?
What are the treatment side-effects?
After treatment

What are the symptoms?

The most common symptoms of ovarian cancer are abdominal pain or swelling, and sometimes an increased need to pass urine. Your daughter also may notice bleeding between periods, or that her menstrual cycle has changed. There can be many different causes for this, so it’s important to get checked out by a GP.

How is it diagnosed?

Ovarian cancer is usually diagnosed after an internal pelvic examination at a hospital. Your daughter may also need to have blood tests, ultrasound or CT scans or a laparoscopy. In a laparoscopy, specialists make a small cut to the abdomen which allows them to look at the ovaries and surrounding area with a tiny camera.

Based on these tests, the specialist will be able to assign a stage to their cancer. This refers to the size of the tumour and whether it has spread to other organs, such as the womb or lymph nodes.

How is it treated?

Treatment for ovarian germ cell tumours usually involves surgery and chemotherapy. The exact treatment your daughter receives will depend on the location and spread of the germ cell tumour, so it’s best to talk to your specialist for further information.

Surgery

The first stage of treatment for ovarian cancer is usually an operation to remove the affected ovary and the attached fallopian tube. This is called a ‘laparotomy’ and involves the surgeon making a small cut in the abdomen. If only one ovary needs to be removed, this won’t affect your daughter's ability to have children later in life.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is the use of anti-cancer drugs to target the cancer cells. These are usually given as an injection or through a drip every 3–4 weeks for four or more sessions of treatment.

What are the treatment side-effects?

If your daughter is undergoing chemotherapy, she may experience side-effects such as tiredness, sickness, diarrhoea and temporary hair loss. She may also be at greater risk of infections.

For more information about how side-effects can be managed, talk to the consultant or nurses, or see the side-effects section  of our website.

Your daughter may also notice that chemotherapy affects her remaining ovary, and that her monthly periods stop or become irregular. Once the chemotherapy is finished, they should return to normal, although this may take several months.

After treatment

Fertility

Your specialists will do all they can to preserve your daughter's ability to have children, however the priority needs to be fighting the cancer. If only one ovary is removed, your daughter is likely to remain fertile and should find that her menstrual cycle gets back to normal several months after her chemotherapy treatment. However, if both ovaries are removed, your daughter will not be able to have a baby without specialist help. This can be really hard to deal with, so it’s important for her to talk things through with someone she trusts.

Follow up

After your daughter's treatment is complete, she will still need to be seen regularly at an outpatient clinic. At this clinic, the specialist will be looking for any signs that her cancer has returned (this is known as a relapse). They will also check that your daughter's major organs, such as her heart and lungs, are still functioning correctly and haven’t been affected by her cancer treatment.

Long-term follow up

Once your daughter's risk of relapse has reduced, the focus of on-going follow up changes to looking out for potential long term side effects of treatment. The risk of long term side effects depends on the type of cancer your daughter had and the treatment she received. A personalised surveillance plan is usually created that outlines the specific long term follow up and on-going investigations required.

Many people are at low risk of future health problems but some will have significant on-going health needs. Talk to the specialist about the potential long-term side-effects of treatment.

Updated January 2015, next planned review 2017.

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