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Ovarian Research

The Penn Ovarian Cancer Research Center

Ovarian Cancer

The vast majority of ovarian cancers are found at advanced stages, because early, small ovarian cancers are asymptomatic or have vague symptoms and cannot usually be found by a physician's exam. It is important to recognize the symptoms and risk factors of ovarian cancer and talk to your physician if you experience any of the following:


  • Pelvic or abdominal pain or discomfort
  • Vague but persistent gastrointestinal upsets such as gas, nausea, and indigestion
  • Frequency and/or urgency of urination in the absence of an infection
  • Unexplained weight gain or weight loss
  • Pelvic and/or abdominal swelling, bloating and/or feeling of fullness
  • Ongoing unusual fatigue
  • Unexplained changes in bowel habits

Risk Factors

  • Genetic predisposition
  • Personal or family history of breast, ovarian or colon cancer
  • Increasing age
  • Undesired infertility


Currently, there is no consistently reliable, accurate screening test to detect ovarian cancer. It is recommended that women age 18 and above have an annual vaginal exam and women over age 35 have an annual rectovaginal exam.

For women at high risk for ovarian cancer, your physician may recommend either:

  • Transvaginal sonography, (An ultrasound performed with a small instrument placed in the vagina.)
  • CA-125 blood test to determine if the level of a tumor marker called CA-125 has increased in the blood.

These tests have not proven very valuable in detecting ovarian cancer early. In addition, a traditional Pap Test does not detect ovarian cancer.

Why Research on Early Detection, Prevention and Advanced Therapy is Critical?

Despite advances in chemotherapy, the death rate from ovarian cancer has not changed significantly in more than four decades. Ovarian cancer remains the most important cause of death from reproductive cancers in women. In fact, half of all deaths from cancer of the genital tract are due to ovarian cancer.

The statistics related to ovarian cancer are staggering:

  • Ovarian cancer is the 5th leading cause of cancer related deaths among women.
  • One in 65 women in the United States will develop ovarian cancer.
  • A woman dies from ovarian cancer every 45 minutes in the United States.
  • The majority of women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed with advanced disease (Stage III or IV).
  • Approximately half of the patients with ovarian cancer are diagnosed before the age of 55 and most patients diagnosed with advanced disease do not live longer than two or three years beyond the time of diagnosis.
  • The need for early detection is crucial – if caught in Stage I, the five-year survival rate from ovarian cancer is over 90 percent. If caught in Stage III the survival rate is less than 30 percent.

The critical factors accounting for these statistics can be summarized as following:

  • Lack of early detection methods for ovarian cancer. As a result, two-thirds of patients have advanced disease that has already spread to the abdominal cavity and sometimes also the chest at the time of diagnosis.
  • Lack of prevention methods. Except for rare hereditary ovarian cancers (which account for less than 10 percent of all ovarian cancers), we do not understand the cause of ovarian cancer and therefore, cannot define populations of women at risk. In addition, short of removing the ovaries surgically, we do not have effective prevention strategies.
  • Failure of current therapeutics. The vast majority of patients currently diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer will fail conventional chemotherapy within one to three years.