The ovaries are the part of the female reproductive organs which produce hormones (estrogen and progesterone) and egg cells every month during a woman’s reproductive cycle. The ovaries are located on either side of the uterus in the lower abdomen/pelvis and are approximately the size of almonds. After going through menopause (the change of life), the ovaries usually shrink to about half their normal size.

Signs and symptoms:

  • Some tumors that grow in the ovaries are benign, or noncancerous, and never spread beyond the ovary.
  • Some younger women may develop cysts on the ovary, which can be felt on exam. A cyst is a small fluid filled growth that is rarely cancerous, especially in pre-menopausal women.
  • Some cysts may be followed by ultrasound (U/S) and may go away on their own. Others will require surgical removal.


About one in 70 women, or 1.4%, will develop ovarian cancer. 70% of ovarian cancers are not diagnosed until the cancer has spread from the ovary to other parts of the body because the symptoms of early disease are vague and tend to mimic other medical problems. The average age of developing ovarian cancer is 61 years old.


Ovarian carcinoma (cancer) occurs when the cells in the ovary grow and divide uncontrollably. These cells accumulate and form tumors that may invade or destroy normal tissues. These cells can break away and spread (metastasize) to other organs in the abdomen to form new tumors or spread to other parts of the body through the lymphatic system or blood stream. The most common type of ovarian cancer cell is epithelial.

There are five major types of epithelial ovarian cancers:

  • Serous
  • Mucinous
  • Endometrioid
  • Undifferentiated
  • Clear Cell

Epithelial ovarian cancers arise from cells in the ovary and are divided into grade according to how atypical the cell looks under the microscope.

Grade: what the cell looks like under the microscope; well-differentiated tumors have a better prognosis than poorly differentiated tumors.

  • Grade 1 - well-differentiated
  • Grade 2 - moderately-differentiated
  • Grade 3 - poorly-differentiated

Stage: There are four stages of ovarian cancer depending on where the disease has spread.

  • Stage I - Disease is limited to one or both ovaries
  • Stage II - Cancer has spread beyond the ovaries, but is limited to the surrounding pelvic organs.
  • Stage III - Cancer has spread beyond the ovary and pelvis to the upper abdominal cavity, excluding the liver or to the lymph nodes.
  • Stage IV - Cancer has metastasized or spread outside the ovary and abdomen, to the liver, lungs or other organs located outside of the abdominal area.

Low Malignant Potential Tumors of the Ovary, also known as Borderline tumors, are the most well differentiated types of ovarian cancers (Grade 0). They account for up to 15% of all epithelial cancers of the ovary.

Factors that may decrease risk of developing ovarian cancer:

  • Multiple children or pregnancies
  • *Late menarche
  • *Early menopause
  • Tubal ligation or hysterectomy
  • Use of oral contraceptives greater than 1 year
  • Breast feeding

Symptoms associated with ovarian cancer:

  • Bloating (clothes don’t fit right)
  • Vague abdominal discomfort or low back pain
  • Gastrointestinal discomfort
  • Unexplained fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Early satiety (feel full quickly when eating)
  • Urinary frequency
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Shortness of breath


The diagnosis of ovarian cancer is made by pathologic (laboratory) review of tissue under a microscope. Tests pre-operatively can help determine if surgery is needed. An ultrasound can sometimes help identify a solid vs. cystic or simple vs. complex mass. A CT or PET scan may help determine the extent or spread of disease. A CA-125 tumor marker is a blood test that is elevated in eight out of ten women with advanced ovarian cancer but can be falsely elevated in benign conditions and, therefore, is not a good screening tool for ovarian cancer.


Surgical exploration and appropriate staging procedures are required, including removal of the ovaries, tubes and uterus along with removal of abnormal tissues which may include a section of bowel, appendix, omentum, and lymph nodes. Fluid within the abdomen may be removed and is called peritoneal washings, or cytology, to look for malignant cells. This process is called staging and is used to determine if the cancer has spread, which is important in treatment planning, and follow-up. In women with advanced cancer, removal of as much tumor as possible is the ultimate goal. Optimal tumor debulking is defined as leaving behind no tumor implant greater than 5mm. A colostomy may be necessary in some advanced cases of ovarian cancer. In advanced recurrent cancer, surgery is sometimes required to remove the cancerous growth or relieve obstruction of the bowel.


  • For those who will need chemotherapy, the current first line therapy is platinum which is usually begun 2-4 weeks after surgery. This treatment can be given intravenous or in combination with intraperitoneal chemotherapy. A treatment cycle consists of one or two chemotherapy days every three weeks for six times over a total of 18 weeks.
  • Upon completion of the initial course of chemotherapy, if there remains evidence of disease, a 2nd line therapy may be administered.

Recommended Follow-up Schedule:

*Physical examination, CA-125 are recommended on the following schedule

  • Every 3-4 months for the first 2 years
  • Every 6 months for years 3-5
  • Yearly thereafter
  • Scans and X-rays at the discretion of the doctor

Ovarian cancer affects more than 20,000 women each year. While the condition has a reputation of being difficult to diagnose early, new understanding of the cancer and advanced treatment options are allowing women to overcome this type of gynecologic cancer.

If you have received an ovarian cancer diagnosis, rest assured our team is equipped to help you take charge and return to good health. We begin by working closely with you to determine the best course of treatment. We consider your age, desire to conceive, and how far the cancer has progressed when creating a treatment plan. Most often, treatment includes surgery to both accurately diagnose and treat ovarian cancer.

Dr. Schmitz exudes confidence and her extensive training, education, board certifications and wisdom gained by years of experience and her lovely, easy going manner gave me the confidence I needed to move aggressively ahead with my treatment. –B.W.

Robotic Gynecologic Oncology Procedures

Many women will have a hysterectomy and salpingo-oophorectomy— these procedures surgically remove the uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries. Some women may be eligible for a partial hysterectomy (removing only part of the uterus) and/or a unilateral salpingo-oophorectomy (removing just one ovary and fallopian tube). You also may require an omentectomy (removing the layer of tissue covering stomach and large intestine) and/or a lymph node dissection (removing some of the lymph nodes of the pelvis and abdomen), depending upon the progression of the cancer.

Our surgeons have been performing these procedures for decades and are highly experienced with the most minimally invasive techniques and technology. Many times, patients are eligible for these procedures to be performed with the aid of the surgical robot. We perform these procedures at the Surgical Robotics Institute at Swedish Medical Center, a specialized unit of the hospital dedicated to caring for patients undergoing robotic procedures.

Robotic surgery provides surgeons with enhanced vision, more dexterity and reduces the impact of surgery on the body. Performed through tiny incisions, these procedures often result in less blood loss and transfusions, less pain, less risk of infection, shorter hospital stays, faster recoveries and a quicker return to normal activity.