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Patient education: Ovarian cancer diagnosis and staging (Beyond the Basics)

Lee-may Chen, MD
Jonathan S Berek, MD, MMS
Section Editor
Barbara Goff, MD
Deputy Editor
Sandy J Falk, MD, FACOG
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Ovarian cancer is the second most common cancer of the reproductive organs among women in the United States [1]. The average age at diagnosis of ovarian cancer is 63 years old [2]. The lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer is approximately 1.4 percent.

There are several different types of cancer that can develop in the ovary; epithelial ovarian cancer (EOC) is the most common type and is the subject of this topic review. We will hereafter use the term ovarian cancer to refer to EOC.

This topic review discusses the diagnosis and staging of ovarian cancer. A separate topic review is available that discusses ovarian cancer treatment. (See "Patient education: First-line medical treatment of epithelial ovarian cancer (Beyond the Basics)".)


The following factors increase the risk of developing ovarian cancer:

Being a white person

Never being pregnant

Early age of menarche (the onset of the menstrual periods) or late age of menopause

Family history of ovarian, breast, or endometrial (uterine) cancer, particularly if the person inherits a specific type of genetic abnormality called a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation. (See "Patient education: Genetic testing for breast and ovarian cancer (Beyond the Basics)".)

Family history of Lynch syndrome (hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer [HNPCC]). Women in families with this trait have up to a 60 percent chance of developing endometrial cancer and a 10 to 12 percent chance of developing ovarian cancer [3].


During the early stages of ovarian cancer, symptoms are often vague and ill-defined. Symptoms may include pelvic or abdominal discomfort, bloating, difficulty eating or feeling full, increased abdominal size, or urinary symptoms (urgency and frequency).

In some women, ovarian cancer is initially suspected when a mass or lump is felt during a routine pelvic examination. However, a mass is not always detectable in the early stages of ovarian cancer. Even when a mass is detected, it does not necessarily mean that the woman has ovarian cancer. A number of other noncancerous conditions can cause masses.

Because the initial symptoms are vague and nonspecific, the majority of women have advanced-stage disease by the time the diagnosis is made. At this point, the woman may have more prominent symptoms such as abdominal distention (swelling), nausea, or a significant loss of appetite.


If ovarian cancer is suspected because of symptoms and/or an abnormal physical examination, imaging tests of the abdomen and pelvis (such as by ultrasound, computed tomography [CT], or magnetic resonance imaging [MRI]) are usually recommended initially. Radiology tests such as these do not provide enough information by themselves to definitively diagnose ovarian cancer, although they may provide important information about the location and/or extent of a possible cancer.

The only way to diagnose ovarian cancer with certainty is through surgery. If a growth that appears cancerous is seen on the ovary, the entire ovary is usually removed. Biopsy of an ovary with suspected ovarian cancer is usually not performed, since a biopsy may spread cancer cells and result in a more advanced cancer. In premenopausal women, removal of a single ovary will not result in menopause or infertility if the other ovary is healthy. (See 'Exploratory laparotomy' below.)

Laparoscopy (a procedure to explore the abdomen through a small incision using a laparoscope) may be used to evaluate a pelvic mass. Open surgery is usually preferred when there is high suspicion of malignancy. In rare cases where open exploratory surgery is not possible because the woman is in poor health or the disease is far advanced, a diagnostic laparoscopy may also be recommended. In other cases, a nonsurgical procedure that removes tissue or fluid from the abdomen or chest with a needle (called a biopsy, paracentesis, or thoracentesis) is done to confirm the diagnosis before chemotherapy begins.

Tumor markers (CA 125) — Prior to or immediately following surgery, most women who are suspected of having or are diagnosed with ovarian cancer undergo a blood test to measure the level of a protein tumor marker called cancer antigen (CA) 125. This marker is normally less than 35 units/mL. CA 125 levels are elevated (above 65 units/mL) in 80 percent of women with advanced ovarian cancer (see below).

An elevated CA 125 is not diagnostic of ovarian cancer. It is often negative in women who have ovarian cancer. Also, it can often be positive for reasons other than ovarian cancer (eg, endometriosis, fibroids). It is important to measure it before surgery so that it can be used as a baseline value to monitor the success of treatment if ovarian cancer is found.

The use of CA 125 as a screening test for ovarian cancer is discussed separately. (See "Patient education: Ovarian cancer screening (Beyond the Basics)".)

Initial surgery — A procedure called exploratory laparotomy is typically recommended for women who are suspected of having ovarian cancer. Sometimes a laparoscopy may also be considered with a smaller ovarian mass. The surgery is most successful in accurately diagnosing and treating ovarian cancer when it is performed by a gynecologic oncologist, a clinician who has had extensive training in the management of cancers of the female reproductive system.

Exploratory laparotomy — During the procedure, usually, a vertical (up and down) abdominal incision is made and the surgeon examines the organs within the pelvis and abdomen for signs of cancer. Samples of tissue and fluid are taken from the following areas:

Within the abdominal cavity (also called the peritoneal cavity)

The ovary and tube

Neighboring lymph nodes

Other abdominal organs

The omentum (the apron of fat that covers and connects the organs of the abdomen and pelvis)

The surface of the diaphragm

While still in the operating room, the surgeon sends the tissues for microscopic examination by a pathologist, a clinician who has specialized training in the examination of tissues. The pathologist examines the tissue samples during the surgery (called frozen section analysis), and then immediately notifies the surgeon as to whether definite signs of cancer are present. A more thorough examination of the fluid and tissue samples performed after the surgery is completed to ensure that the initial diagnosis was correct.

If the pathologist finds evidence of ovarian cancer on frozen section analysis, the surgeon will then attempt to remove as much of the cancerous tissue as possible. This procedure is termed surgical staging and is an important first step in the treatment of ovarian cancer.

In most cases, the uterus, both fallopian tubes, and both ovaries are also removed (figure 1). If the cancer has spread to other organs, those organs, or affected portions of them, may be removed as well. As much tumor as possible is removed. This is called "debulking" or cytoreduction. Treatment outcomes are best in women whose surgery removes all visible tumor (termed optimal debulking). Having the surgical procedure performed by a gynecologic oncologist provides the best chance for optimal debulking.

However, in some cases, if a young woman wished to preserve her ability to bear children in the future, it may be possible to leave the uterus, one fallopian tube, and one ovary in place. This would only be possible if these structures seem to be unaffected by the cancer. The surgeon and patient should discuss this option before the operation is undertaken.

Minimally invasive procedure — In some patients, a less invasive procedure called exploratory laparoscopy may be performed. In this procedure, a flexible tube (a laparoscope) is inserted through a small incision in the abdomen. The laparoscope has a camera that the surgeon uses to visualize the contents of the abdomen and pelvis. This less invasive approach may be chosen for a young woman with a mass that is unlikely to be an ovarian cancer.

However, an open laparotomy is generally preferred because it allows the surgeon to more easily and completely visualize the abdominal contents and remove any suspicious masses.


Based upon the findings during exploratory surgery, the tumor is formally "staged" according to the size, extent, and location of the cancer. Accurate staging during surgery is very important in determining a woman's long-term outcome (prognosis) and choosing the appropriate treatment regimen after surgery.

The stage of an ovarian cancer is defined by a Roman numeral designation between I and IV and subdivided by the letters A, B, and C. In general, the stages I, II, III, and IV refer to the location of tumor involvement, while the subdivisions A, B, and C define the extent of tumor involvement. A higher stage of disease indicates more extensive tumor involvement.

Early-stage cancer — Stage I and II disease are considered early-stage ovarian cancer:

In stage IA and IB disease, the cancer is limited to one or both ovaries, and the capsule or membrane covering the ovaries has not been broken by the cancer's growth.

In stage IC disease, the capsule of either ovary may have ruptured or there may be signs suggesting that cancer cells have begun to spread within the pelvis (ie, there are cancerous cells in the fluid taken from the peritoneal cavity during surgery).

In stage II disease, other pelvic organs, such as the uterus or fallopian tubes, are involved with the tumor, and there may be early signs that the cancer has spread beyond the pelvis.

Advanced-stage disease

In stage III disease, the cancer is confined to the abdomen and the abdominal lymph nodes.

In stage IV disease, the cancer has spread to distant sites such as the liver or lungs.

Recommendations for treatment after surgery depend upon the disease stage. While a course of chemotherapy is recommended after surgery for all women with stage III or IV ovarian cancer, it may or may not be recommended for women who have stage I or II disease. (See "Patient education: First-line medical treatment of epithelial ovarian cancer (Beyond the Basics)".)


A number of factors influence the success of treatment for ovarian cancer. Treatment tends to be more successful when the cancer is diagnosed at an early stage and in younger women. One of the most important factors influencing the outcome of treatment is the amount of tumor that remains after the initial surgery (ie, the success of the initial debulking procedure). This is the reason that the surgeon aims to remove as much of the cancerous tissue as possible during the initial surgery. As noted above, this is most likely when the surgeon performing the debulking procedure is a gynecologic oncology specialist.

Complete response — At the end of treatment (both surgery and chemotherapy), a patient is considered to have a "complete response" if the physical examination is normal, there is no evidence of cancer on imaging studies (such as a computed tomography [CT] scan), and the blood levels of cancer antigen (CA) 125 are normal. However, even when all of these criteria are met, small, sometimes microscopic amounts of residual cancer (ie, not visible on imaging studies) can still be present.

In some women, a second surgical exploration (termed a second-look laparotomy or laparoscopy) may be performed to more conclusively evaluate the response to treatment. However, it is unclear whether the findings at second-look surgery influence later treatment and prognosis. For this reason, the benefit of second-look surgery is controversial, and it is not routinely recommended for all women.

Recurrence — Even women who have a complete response to initial therapy (as determined by physical examination, imaging studies, and/or second-look surgery) can have a recurrence of ovarian cancer at a later time. The likelihood of a tumor recurrence is highest in women with more advanced-stage disease at diagnosis, particularly if the initial debulking surgery was unable to remove all visible tumor.

Signs of recurrent ovarian cancer include new symptoms (eg, abdominal bloating, back pain), a rising blood level of CA 125, or new findings on a follow-up CT scan. Further treatment may not be recommended immediately if the CA 125 level is slowly rising, there are no new symptoms, and a CT scan shows no new abnormalities that could indicate a disease recurrence.


The treatment of ovarian cancer is discussed at length in a separate topic review. (See "Patient education: First-line medical treatment of epithelial ovarian cancer (Beyond the Basics)".)


Progress in treating cancer requires that better treatments be identified through clinical trials, which are conducted all over the world. A clinical trial is a carefully controlled way to study the effectiveness of new treatments or new combinations of known therapies. Ask for more information about clinical trials, or read about clinical trials at:



Videos addressing common questions about clinical trials are available from the American Society of Clinical Oncology (http://www.cancer.net/pre-act).


Your healthcare provider is the best source of information for questions and concerns related to your medical problem.

This article will be updated as needed on our web site (www.uptodate.com/patients). Related topics for patients, as well as selected articles written for healthcare professionals, are also available. Some of the most relevant are listed below.

Patient level information — UpToDate offers two types of patient education materials.

The Basics — The Basics patient education pieces answer the four or five key questions a patient might have about a given condition. These articles are best for patients who want a general overview and who prefer short, easy-to-read materials.

Patient education: Ovarian cancer (The Basics)
Patient education: Ovarian cancer screening (The Basics)

Beyond the Basics — Beyond the Basics patient education pieces are longer, more sophisticated, and more detailed. These articles are best for patients who want in-depth information and are comfortable with some medical jargon.

Patient education: First-line medical treatment of epithelial ovarian cancer (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Genetic testing for breast and ovarian cancer (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Ovarian cancer screening (Beyond the Basics)

Professional level information — Professional level articles are designed to keep doctors and other health professionals up-to-date on the latest medical findings. These articles are thorough, long, and complex, and they contain multiple references to the research on which they are based. Professional level articles are best for people who are comfortable with a lot of medical terminology and who want to read the same materials their doctors are reading.

Adjuvant therapy of early stage (stage I and II) epithelial ovarian, fallopian tubal, or peritoneal cancer
Cancer of the ovary, fallopian tube, and peritoneum: Staging and initial surgical management
Epithelial carcinoma of the ovary, fallopian tube, and peritoneum: Histopathology
Epithelial carcinoma of the ovary, fallopian tube, and peritoneum: Clinical features and diagnosis
First-line chemotherapy for advanced (stage III or IV) epithelial ovarian, fallopian tubal, and peritoneal cancer
Genetic counseling and testing for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer
Intraperitoneal chemotherapy for treatment of ovarian cancer
Medical treatment for relapsed epithelial ovarian, fallopian tubal, or peritoneal cancer: Platinum-resistant disease
Overview of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndromes
Management of patients at high risk for breast and ovarian cancer
Ovarian germ cell tumors: Pathology, clinical manifestations, and diagnosis
Borderline ovarian tumors
Approach to the patient with an adnexal mass
Risk-reducing bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy in women at high risk of epithelial ovarian and fallopian tubal cancer
Screening for ovarian cancer
Cancer of the ovary, fallopian tube, and peritoneum: Surgery for recurrent cancer
Adnexal mass in pregnancy

The following organizations also provide reliable health information.

People Living With Cancer: The official patient information website of the American Society of Clinical Oncology


The Women's Cancer Network


National Comprehensive Cancer Network


Gynecologic Oncology Group


National Cancer Institute


American Cancer Society


National Ovarian Cancer Coalition


Literature review current through: Nov 2017. | This topic last updated: Mon Jul 10 00:00:00 GMT 2017.
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