What Are the Treatments for Ovarian Cancer?

Medically Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on September 24, 2023
4 min read

When you've been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, your doctor will work with you to decide what treatment is right for you. Often, you’ll have several of the treatments at the same time.

Surgery. This is usually the first step. It's done to take out a piece of the mass to see if it's cancer. Doctors call this a biopsy. Surgery helps "stage" the cancer to see how far it has spread. Once cancer is confirmed, your surgeon will take out as much of the tumor as possible.

How much surgery you have depends on how far the cancer has spread. In some cases, the ovaries, uterus, cervix, or fallopian tubes may need to be removed. Other tissue typically removed includes lymph nodes, the omentum (fatty apron covering the intestines) and all visible cancer. If your surgery is in the very early stages or you want to have children, your doctor may not remove all your reproductive organs.

Chemotherapy (“chemo”). You may need chemo to get rid of any cancer cells that are still in your body after surgery. You usually receive these powerful medications through an IV. But sometimes they work better for ovarian cancer if they’re injected into your abdomen. This lets the medicine come into direct contact with the part of your body where the cancer was and is most likely to spread.

Radiation. These high-energy X-rays can help kill any cancer cells that are left over in the pelvic area. It can be used if cancer has come back after treatment or to help control symptoms like pain.

Targeted therapy. These treatments use newer medications that find and attack cancer cells while doing little damage to surrounding normal cells. These meds all work in different ways, but they’re able to stop cancer cells from growing, dividing, or fixing themselves. The medications are either taken by mouth or given by IV.

Hormone therapy. In some cases, your doctor might suggest using hormones or hormone-blocking medications. According to the American Cancer Society, this therapy is most often used to treat ovarian stromal tumors, not epithelial ovarian cancer.

Clinical trials. Doctors are always conducting studies to take a closer look at new treatments and procedures. By taking part in these trials, you can get access to current state-of-the-art treatments. But they may not be right for everyone. Ask your doctor how you can find out more and if a clinical trial might be right for you. Search for trials that you might qualify for at ClinicalTrials.gov, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC.org), the National Cancer Institute (Cancer.gov), and other websites.

The type of treatment you decide on with your medical team will depend in large part on your overall health and how far your cancer has progressed. It will likely be some combination of surgery, radiation, and drug therapy (including possible chemo). The exact approach will depend on the treatment goals: Is there a chance for a cure, or is the goal to manage symptoms?

Personal treatment goals, which could be different for each person, also play a part. Consider how different options affect your mental and physical health and quality of life. Issues you might address include:

  • How will it affect my family relationships?
  • How will it affect everyday activities at work and home?
  • Is it easier to manage side effects of the treatment or the possible effects of the disease?
  • How exactly will you cope with treatment side effects?
  • Can you balance effective treatment that lengthens life with management of side effects that helps you maintain an acceptable quality of life?

You might need to talk through these issues with those closest to you or with a therapist or support group.

A diagnosis of ovarian cancer can take a toll on your mental health as well as your personal relationships. Anxiety, distress, and depression are common and, in many cases, normal responses. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek help when you need it.

A mental health professional or a therapy group of cancer survivors can sometimes help you get a handle on the complex issues that may arise. In many cases, it might help to include family members and loved ones in part of this process. The Cancer Survivors Network is one good place to start to look for support resources. Talk to your cancer care team if you’re unsure where to begin.