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What is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer occurs when cells in one or both ovaries become abnormal, grow out of control and form a lump called a tumour.

There are many forms of ovarian cancer. The three main types start in different types of cells: epithelial, germ or stromal cells.

epithelialthe most common type of ovarian cancer (about 9 out of 10 cases); starts on the surface of the ovary (epithelium)*; subtypes include serous, mucinous, endometrioid and clear cell cancers; mostly occurs over the age of 60. * Epithelial cancer that starts in the fallopian tubes or in the peritoneum is very similar to epithelial ovarian cancer. Recent research suggests that many ovarian cancers start in the fallopian tubes.
germ cellrare type of ovarian cancer (about 4% of cases); starts in the egg-producing (germinal) cells; mostly occurs under the age of 40.
stromal cell (or sex cordstromal tumours)rare cancer that starts in the cells in the ovaries that produce the hormones oestrogen and progesterone; may produce extra hormones, such as oestrogen; mostly occurs between the ages of 40 and 60.

Sometimes an ovarian tumour is diagnosed as borderline (also known as a low malignant potential tumour). This is not considered to be cancer.

If ovarian cancer spreads beyond the ovaries, it often spreads to the organs in the abdomen.

How common is ovarian cancer?

Each year, about 1400 Australians are diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It is more commonly diagnosed over the age of 50, but can occur at any age. It is the 10th most common cancer in women in Australia.

Anyone with ovaries can get ovarian cancer, so it mostly affects women. Transgender men and intersex people can also get ovarian cancer if they have ovaries. For information specific to your situation, speak to your doctor.

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Understanding Ovarian Cancer

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed April 2020 by the following expert content reviewers: A/Prof Sam Saidi, Senior Staff Specialist, Gynaecological Oncology, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, NSW; A/Prof Penny Blomfield, Gynaecological Oncologist, Hobart Women’s Specialists, and Chair, Australian Society of Gynaecologic Oncologists, TAS; Dr Robyn Cheuk, Senior Radiation Oncologist, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, QLD; Kim Hobbs, Clinical Specialist Social Worker, Gynaecological Cancer, Westmead Hospital, NSW; Sonja Kingston, Consumer; Clinical A/Prof Judy Kirk, Head, Familial Cancer Service, Crown Princess Mary Cancer Centre, Westmead Hospital, and Sydney Medical School, The University of Sydney, NSW; Prof Linda Mileshkin, Medical Oncologist and Clinical Researcher, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Deb Roffe, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Support Team, Ovarian Cancer Australia; Emily Stevens, Gynaecology Oncology Nurse Coordinator, Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Flinders Medical Centre, SA; Dr Amy Vassallo, Fussell Family Foundation Research Fellow, Cancer Research Division, Cancer Council NSW; Merran Williams, Consumer.