Dealing With Late-Stage Ovarian Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on July 18, 2022
5 min read

When you’re diagnosed with late-stage (stage IV) ovarian cancer, you probably have lots of questions. You might wonder, how long can you live with advanced ovarian cancer? And what happens if it progresses to end-stage ovarian cancer?

While everyone’s cancer is different, you can educate yourself and take steps to help prepare for what may lie ahead.

Stage IV ovarian cancer is a “distant” stage. That means the cancer has spread far from your ovaries into places like your liver, lungs, or bones.

Your life expectancy with this type of cancer depends on factors individual to you. Your age, overall health, how well your cancer responds to treatment, and what treatment options are available to you all make a difference in your outcome.

Five-year relative survival rates compare the chances that someone with a certain type and stage of cancer will survive for 5 years, compared with the general population. For example, a rate of 50% means a person diagnosed with that cancer is 50% as likely to live at least 5 years as someone without that cancer.

Survival rates depend in part on what type of ovarian cancer you have. In people who are initially diagnosed with ovarian cancer at stage IV, the 5-year relative survival rates are:

  • For germ cell tumors of the ovary: 74%
  • For ovarian stromal tumors: 70%
  • For invasive epithelial ovarian cancer: 31%

Survival rates often improve over time as better treatments become available. These 5-year survival rates are based on information about people who were diagnosed between 2011 and 2017. When the next set of data becomes available, the rates may change.

You can ask your doctor to give you an estimate, based on your individual situation, of how long you can expect to live. While it’s a hard conversation to have, the answer can help you put plans in place. That might mean taking a dream trip with your family, or taking care of important paperwork, such as wills or estate trusts.

Remember, this is your doctor’s educated guess. You may have more, or less, time depending on how well you’re doing.

Having stage IV ovarian cancer doesn’t necessarily mean you should give up on treatment. Treatment can often help you feel better and possibly live longer.

Treatment for this stage of ovarian cancer may include some combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and the targeted medication bevacizumab (Avastin). You may also be a candidate for clinical trials, which let you contribute to research while trying a new treatment or combination of treatments.

While it’s not common, it’s possible in some cases to cure ovarian cancer even in its advanced stages. Some 20% of those with late-stage ovarian cancer survive more than 12 years after treatment. In medical terms, they’re considered cured. Your doctor will help you determine whether continuing treatment makes sense for you.

Even when a cure isn’t necessarily the goal, these treatments and others, such as pain medication, can be used as palliative care to relieve symptoms like pain, fatigue, and digestive issues.

Complementary and integrative care may help you manage the symptoms of your cancer as well as side effects of treatment. They can play a role in improving your overall well-being and quality of life. These may include:

  • Acupuncture
  • Meditation
  • Mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques
  • Nutritional counseling
  • Physical therapy
  • Yoga
  • Massage
  • Reflexology, a type of massage in which a therapist applies gentle pressure to certain spots on your body

Ask your doctor what complementary treatments you should consider, and which ones to avoid.

Ovarian cancer often doesn’t have any symptoms in its early stages. Symptoms of late-stage ovarian cancer can include:

  • Bloating in your belly area
  • Belly or abdominal pain
  • Changes in your pee and poop habits
  • Feeling full quickly when you eat
  • Weight loss
  • Tiredness

Depending on where your stage IV ovarian cancer has spread, you can start to feel symptoms in different organs and tissues.

If you have stage IVA, the beginnings of stage IV ovarian cancer, cancer cells have spread to the fluid around your lungs. You could cough, find it harder to breathe, or feel winded.

In stage IVB, the more advanced diagnosis, the cancer has spread to the inside of your spleen or liver and/or other organs or tissues such as your lungs or bones. You may also have cancer in lymph nodes other than those in your abdomen.

Learning that you may not be able to cure your cancer takes a toll. It’s a hard thing to process and navigate.

Being diagnosed with ovarian cancer at any stage raises your risk for problems like anxiety, depression, stress, worry, and insomnia. One study found that, in the first 2 years after their diagnosis, women with ovarian cancer were three times more likely to have depression or anxiety than the general public.

You may also have trouble with your social life and with physical intimacy. In studies, people with ovarian cancer voiced all these concerns.

Your mental state is an important part of your overall health. If you’re having a hard time, reach out for help. Many cancer centers have mental health care professionals, such as psychiatrists, psychologists, or social workers, to help people going through cancer.

Taking steps to take care of yourself can help relieve stress and give you a sense of control.

Social support. This is important for both your physical and mental well-being. Reach out to your family and friends. Often they want to do something to help, but don’t know how. Ask if they can set up a meal train for you, for example, if you’re having trouble cooking for yourself.

If your condition worsens, you and your family may need more support. Your cancer center or hospital can help you find resources in your community. Often, they’re free or low-cost. A hospital social worker can help you look for grants or financial aid if you’re having financial problems related to your condition. The American Cancer Society can also point you to sources of support.

Take care of your body. Eat as well as you can and, if your doctor approves, move your body in gentle ways that feel good. This not only helps you maintain physical strength but can help boost your mood as well.

Spiritual and emotional care. Do things that nourish your spirit, whether it’s journaling, prayer, church services, a hobby, or time spent in nature.

Say no. Save your time and energy for things that really matter to you.

If treatment is no longer an option, consider hospice care. Whether you get this care at home or at a facility, the hospice team will provide social, emotional, and spiritual support to you and your family during the final stages of your illness.

Hospice nurses make regular visits to your home to help monitor your care and help guide your primary caregiver. They’re often available by phone 24/7 to answer any questions or concerns.