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Ovarian cancer is the ninth most diagnosed cancer in people in Australia. It can form in one or both ovaries. It’s important to be aware of the symptoms, as early diagnosis improves treatment outcomes. Read more about this cancer, the symptoms, causes and how it’s diagnosed.

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What is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer forms in one or both ovaries. Some cancers are called ‘borderline’ as they are slow growing, confined to the ovary and treated by surgery alone. About 15% of ovarian tumours are borderline and usually affect those aged 20 to 40.

There are three main types of ovarian cancer.

The below picture shows the female reproductive organs.

Diagram of female reproductive system


This cancer starts in the cells that line the surface layer of the ovary (epithelium). Most ovarian cancers are epithelial. Research suggests that many epithelial ovarian cancers start in the fallopian tubes.

Epithelium cancer usually occurs in people aged over 50.

These cancers can be cystic and contain watery fluid or mucous-like fluid.

Germ cell

This cancer starts in the cells that produce eggs. It usually develops in people younger than 30. Germ cell cancer accounts for 5% of ovarian cancer cases.

Stromal cell

This cancer starts in the tissues that support the ovary. Stromal cell cancer is rare but it can occur in people of all ages.


It’s important to know the symptoms of ovarian cancer, as there are no specific tests to detect it. Ovarian cancer is hard to detect in the early stages. It usually starts in cells on the surface or inside the ovary (or from the fallopian tubes) and gradually enlarges. As there is room for it to grow, it does not cause symptoms until it is quite large.

Symptoms may include:

  • increased abdominal size or persistent abdominal bloating
  • abdominal or pelvic pain
  • feeling full after eating a small amount
  • needing to wee often or urgently
  • pain during sex.

Other symptoms can include:

  • changes in bowel habits
  • unexplained weight gain or loss
  • excessive fatigue
  • lower back pain
  • indigestion or heartburn
  • nausea
  • unusual bleeding or bleeding after menopause.

People can experience these symptoms at different times in their lives, which is why ovarian cancer might not be diagnosed until it is quite advanced.

See your doctor if you have any of these symptoms. They may be due to other conditions or health issues, but it’s important to check.


We don’t know the exact cause of ovarian cancer and there are no screening tests available, so it’s important to see your doctor if you feel something isn’t right.

Some people who develop ovarian cancer don’t have any risk factors. But risk factors can include:

  • age (the average age for an ovarian cancer diagnosis is 64 years)
  • family history of ovarian, breast or other cancer
  • having the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene
  • smoking
  • being overweight or obese
  • never having children.


If you experience some of the symptoms of ovarian cancer for more than two weeks, talk to your doctor.

Your doctor will ask questions about your symptoms, medical history and family health history. You may also need to have blood and urine (wee) tests.

If your examination and test results suggest you may have ovarian cancer, your doctor will refer you to a gynaecological oncologist (a specialist in gynaecological cancers) straight away.

You may need more tests to diagnose ovarian cancer. For example:

  • a transvaginal ultrasound (internal ultrasound via the vagina)
  • a biopsy – a sample of cells is taken from your fallopian tubes and tested in a laboratory
  • imaging tests (e.g. CT and PET scans).


Treatment for ovarian cancer depends on the extent of the cancer. It may include:

  • surgery
  • chemotherapy
  • special therapies, drugs or chemicals, used to target specific cancer cells
  • radiotherapy and immunotherapy (currently being used in clinical trials)
  • palliative treatment.

Cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, can cause menopause. Learn more about menopause due to cancer treatment.

When to see your doctor

It’s important to see your doctor if you notice any symptoms of ovarian cancer. In most cases, early detection and diagnosis lead to good outcomes.

This web page is designed to be informative and educational. It is not intended to provide specific medical advice or replace advice from your health practitioner. The information above is based on current medical knowledge, evidence and practice as at April 2023.

This con­tent has been reviewed by a group of med­ical sub­ject mat­ter experts, in accor­dance with Jean Hailes pol­i­cy.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2021. Cancer in Australia 2021. Cancer series no. 133. Cat. no. CAN 144. Canberra: AIHW
Cancer Research UK, Borderline ovarian tumours
Last updated: 
07 December 2023
Last reviewed: 
14 April 2023

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