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Ovarian Cancer

  • Posted: 07/17/2006

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Treatment

Many women with ovarian cancer want to take an active part in making decisions about their medical care. It is natural to want to learn all you can about your disease and treatment choices. Knowing more about ovarian cancer helps many women cope.

Shock and stress after the diagnosis can make it hard to think of everything you want to ask your doctor. It often helps to make a list of questions before an appointment. To help remember what your doctor says, you may take notes or ask whether you may use a tape recorder. You may also want to have a family member or friend with you when you talk to your doctor-to take part in the discussion, to take notes, or just to listen.

You do not need to ask all your questions at once. You will have other chances to ask your doctor or nurse to explain things that are not clear and to ask for more details.

Your doctor may refer you to a gynecologic oncologist, a surgeon who specializes in treating ovarian cancer. Or you may ask for a referral. Other types of doctors who help treat women with ovarian cancer include gynecologists, medical oncologists, and radiation oncologists. You may have a team of doctors and nurses.

Getting a Second Opinion

Before starting treatment, you might want a second opinion about your diagnosis and treatment plan. Many insurance companies cover a second opinion if you or your doctor requests it.

It may take some time and effort to gather medical records and arrange to see another doctor. In most cases, a brief delay in starting treatment will not make treatment less effective. To make sure, you should discuss this delay with your doctor. Sometimes women with ovarian cancer need treatment right away.

There are a number of ways to find a doctor for a second opinion:

  • Your doctor may refer you to one or more specialists. At cancer centers, several specialists often work together as a team.
  • NCI's Cancer Information Service, at 1-800-4-CANCER, can tell you about nearby treatment centers. Information Specialists also can assist you online at LiveHelp.
  • A local or state medical society, a nearby hospital, or a medical school can usually provide the names of specialists.
  • NCI provides a helpful fact sheet called "How To Find a Doctor or Treatment Facility If You Have Cancer."

Treatment Methods

Your doctor can describe your treatment choices and the expected results. Most women have surgery and chemotherapy. Rarely, radiation therapy is used.

Cancer treatment can affect cancer cells in the pelvis, in the abdomen, or throughout the body:

  • Local therapy: Surgery and radiation therapy are local therapies. They remove or destroy ovarian cancer in the pelvis. When ovarian cancer has spread to other parts of the body, local therapy may be used to control the disease in those specific areas.
  • Intraperitoneal chemotherapy: Chemotherapy can be given directly into the abdomen and pelvis through a thin tube. The drugs destroy or control cancer in the abdomen and pelvis.
  • Systemic chemotherapy: When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein, the drugs enter the bloodstream and destroy or control cancer throughout the body.

You may want to know how treatment may change your normal activities. You and your doctor can work together to develop a treatment plan that meets your medical and personal needs.

Because cancer treatments often damage healthy cells and tissues, side effects are common. Side effects depend mainly on the type and extent of the treatment. Side effects may not be the same for each woman, and they may change from one treatment session to the next. Before treatment starts, your health care team will explain possible side effects and suggest ways to help you manage them.

You may want to talk to your doctor about taking part in a clinical trial, a research study of new treatment methods. Clinical trials are an important option for women with all stages of ovarian cancer. The section on "The Promise of Cancer Research" has more information about clinical trials.

You may want to ask your doctor these questions before your treatment begins:

  • What is the stage of my disease? Has the cancer spread from the ovaries? If so, to where?
  • What are my treatment choices? Do you recommend intraperitoneal chemotherapy for me? Why?
  • Would a clinical trial be appropriate for me?
  • Will I need more than one kind of treatment?
  • What are the expected benefits of each kind of treatment?
  • What are the risks and possible side effects of each treatment? What can we do to control side effects? Will they go away after treatment ends?
  • What can I do to prepare for treatment?
  • Will I need to stay in the hospital? If so, for how long?
  • What is the treatment likely to cost? Will my insurance cover the cost?
  • How will treatment affect my normal activities?
  • Will treatment cause me to go through an early menopause?
  • Will I be able to get pregnant and have children after treatment?
  • How often should I have checkups after treatment?

Surgery

The surgeon makes a long cut in the wall of the abdomen. This type of surgery is called a laparotomy. If ovarian cancer is found, the surgeon removes:

  • both ovaries and fallopian tubes (salpingo-oophorectomy)
  • the uterus (hysterectomy)
  • the omentum (the thin, fatty pad of tissue that covers the intestines)
  • nearby lymph nodes
  • samples of tissue from the pelvis and abdomen
If the cancer has spread, the surgeon removes as much cancer as possible. This is called "debulking" surgery.

If you have early Stage I ovarian cancer, the extent of surgery may depend on whether you want to get pregnant and have children. Some women with very early ovarian cancer may decide with their doctor to have only one ovary, one fallopian tube, and the omentum removed.

You may be uncomfortable for the first few days after surgery. Medicine can help control your pain. Before surgery, you should discuss the plan for pain relief with your doctor or nurse. After surgery, your doctor can adjust the plan if you need more pain relief.

The time it takes to heal after surgery is different for each woman. You will spend several days in the hospital. It may be several weeks before you return to normal activities.

If you haven't gone through menopause yet, surgery may cause hot flashes, vaginal dryness, and night sweats. These symptoms are caused by the sudden loss of female hormones. Talk with your doctor or nurse about your symptoms so that you can develop a treatment plan together. There are drugs and lifestyle changes that can help, and most symptoms go away or lessen with time.

You may want to ask your doctor these questions about surgery:

  • What kind of surgery do you recommend for me? Will lymph nodes and other tissues be removed? Why?
  • How soon will I know the results from the pathology report? Who will explain them to me?
  • How will I feel after surgery?
  • If I have pain, how will it be controlled?
  • How long will I be in the hospital?
  • Will I have any long-term effects because of this surgery?
  • Will the surgery affect my sex life?

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses anticancer drugs to kill cancer cells. Most women have chemotherapy for ovarian cancer after surgery. Some women have chemotherapy before surgery.

Usually, more than one drug is given. Drugs for ovarian cancer can be given in different ways:

  • By vein (IV): The drugs can be given through a thin tube inserted into a vein.
  • By vein and directly into the abdomen: Some women get IV chemotherapy along with intraperitoneal (IP) chemotherapy. For IP chemotherapy, the drugs are given through a thin tube inserted into the abdomen.
  • By mouth: Some drugs for ovarian cancer can be given by mouth.

Chemotherapy is given in cycles. Each treatment period is followed by a rest period. The length of the rest period and the number of cycles depend on the anticancer drugs used.

You may have your treatment in a clinic, at the doctor's office, or at home. Some women may need to stay in the hospital during treatment.

The side effects of chemotherapy depend mainly on which drugs are given and how much. The drugs can harm normal cells that divide rapidly:

  • Blood cells: These cells fight infection, help blood to clot, and carry oxygen to all parts of your body. When drugs affect your blood cells, you are more likely to get infections, bruise or bleed easily, and feel very weak and tired. Your health care team checks you for low levels of blood cells. If blood tests show low levels, your health care team can suggest medicines that can help your body make new blood cells.
  • Cells in hair roots: Some drugs can cause hair loss. Your hair will grow back, but it may be somewhat different in color and texture.
  • Cells that line the digestive tract: Some drugs can cause poor appetite, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, or mouth and lip sores. Ask your health care team about medicines that help with these problems.

Some drugs used to treat ovarian cancer can cause hearing loss, kidney damage, joint pain, and tingling or numbness in the hands or feet. Most of these side effects usually go away after treatment ends.

You may find it helpful to read NCI's booklet Chemotherapy and You.

You may want to ask your doctor these questions about chemotherapy:

  • When will treatment start? When will it end? How often will I have treatment?
  • Which drug or drugs will I have?
  • How do the drugs work?
  • Do you recommend both IV and IP (intraperitoneal) chemotherapy for me? Why?
  • What are the expected benefits of the treatment?
  • What are the risks of the treatment? What side effects might I have?
  • Can I prevent or treat any of these side effects? How?
  • How much will it cost? Will my health insurance pay for all of the treatment?

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. A large machine directs radiation at the body.

Radiation therapy is rarely used in the initial treatment of ovarian cancer, but it may be used to relieve pain and other problems caused by the disease. The treatment is given at a hospital or clinic. Each treatment takes only a few minutes.

Side effects depend mainly on the amount of radiation given and the part of your body that is treated. Radiation therapy to your abdomen and pelvis may cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or bloody stools. Also, your skin in the treated area may become red, dry, and tender. Although the side effects can be distressing, your doctor can usually treat or control them. Also, they gradually go away after treatment ends.

NCI provides a booklet called Radiation Therapy and You.

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