What to Do After an Ovarian Cancer Diagnosis

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on July 15, 2022
6 min read

Getting a diagnosis of ovarian cancer can feel overwhelming. The good news is, there are many things you can do to begin your path to recovery. Here are some steps to get started.

This type of cancer is a tumor, or a lump of abnormal cells, in your ovaries. Ovaries make eggs so you can get pregnant. Most women have two ovaries below the stomach, one on each side of the pelvis. Each is about as big as a grape.

Unfortunately, there is not a useful screening test for ovarian cancer. This is why it is often found at an advanced stage. If you have symptoms that are suspicious, your doctor may do one of the following tests to look for an ovarian tumor:

  • Pelvic exam. Your doctor might put their gloved fingers in your vagina to feel if there is a lump. This type of test is called a pelvic exam and is very common. If you want, you can ask another person or doctor to stay in the room with you during a pelvic exam.
  • Imaging. Your doctor might use an ultrasound or CT scan to help them see where the cancer is. They will place a small device in your vagina. This will help them see your ovaries and uterus.
  • Blood test. Your doctor might check for a small protein called CA-125 in your blood. People with ovarian cancer sometimes, but not always, have higher amounts of this protein. Some noncancerous diseases also might cause higher amounts of CA-125 in your blood.

To confirm if you have ovarian cancer, the doctor will do a biopsy. A biopsy is a surgery to remove a tiny piece of tissue from your ovaries. The doctor tests this sample to see if it is cancerous.

Ovarian cancer is diagnosed and given a stage. The stages tell you how aggressive the cancer is and whether it has spread to other parts of your body. Ovarian cancer has four stages. Stage I (one) is the earliest and most treatable phase. The stages are written in Roman numerals, where I means one, II means two, and so on. Talk to your doctor about which stage your disease is. Because it takes time for symptoms to show up, most people are not diagnosed until stages III or IV.

  • Stage I: The cancer has not spread.
  • Stage II: The cancer has spread a little outside the ovaries.
  • Stage III: The cancer has spread into your abdomen.
  • Stage IV: The cancer has spread outside the abdomen.

Cancer can affect one or both ovaries. Cancer of one ovary is called unilateral; cancer of both ovaries is called bilateral.

Find a gynecologic oncologist. These doctors specialize in ovarian cancer and know how to perform the surgery to remove the tumor. People with ovarian cancer are up to 50% more likely to survive surgeries done by gynecologic oncologists than other types of surgeons.

Tips for finding a gynecologic oncologist:

  • Ask your doctor for a referral
  • Call a local hospital or cancer center. If possible, go to a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center. These centers are recognized by the institute for their excellent treatment and research programs. You can look for one with the institute’s Find an NCI-Designated Cancer Center tool.
  • Use the Seek a Specialist tool from the Foundation for Women’s Cancer

Ask your doctor questions. There is no such thing as a bad question! This might be your first time hearing about this type of cancer, so having questions is normal. Some good questions to start with include:

  • What is the outlook for my disease?
  • What are my treatment options?
  • What side effects can I expect?
  • How can I cope with these side effects?
  • What tests and treatments are covered by insurance?

Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion. Different doctors might have different ideas for how to treat your cancer. Or sometimes you might not click with the first doctor you see. If you feel like one doctor isn’t working out, you can try another.

Talk about treatment options. Often, you will receive more than one type of treatment for ovarian cancer. The first treatment is usually surgery to remove the tumor. Sometimes, your doctor might have to remove your ovaries or uterus during the surgery. These organs are necessary for getting pregnant, so talk to your doctor if you are interested in having children.

Your treatment also might include chemotherapy or radiation. Chemotherapy is a drug that you can usually take as a pill or through an IV. Your doctor will tell you how long and how often you need chemotherapy. During radiation therapy, a doctor shines a beam of focused radiation on your abdomen. Both treatments can kill cancer cells or stop them from growing. But they also can cause side effects like nausea or tiredness. Talk to your doctor about what side effects to expect and how you can manage them.

You also can ask your doctor about joining a clinical trial. A clinical trial is a research project where you can try new, experimental types of treatment. Talk to your doctor about whether a clinical trial might be a good fit for you.

Make a personal health record. Keep all your medical records in the same place. It can be a filing cabinet, binder, or folder on your computer. Protect them with a lock, safe, or password. Staying organized can help you answer questions from doctors and insurance companies.

Keeping your records organized can help the payment process go more smoothly. Take notes about each doctor visit, test, and treatment. Keep copies of receipts, bills, claims, and reimbursements.

Include notes and records about your:

  • Diagnosis
  • Test results
  • Treatment
  • Family history
  • Personal history
  • Important contacts (both loved ones and doctors)

Organize your insurance documents. Insurance can be very helpful for paying medical bills. If you don’t already have insurance, see if you can get some or if you are eligible for Medicare or Medicaid.

Find support. A cancer diagnosis can bring up a lot of emotions. Talking to other people who are going through the same thing can help you learn about the condition, make friends, and cope with challenges. Support groups can be online or in person. The Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance’s Partner Directory is a good place to start looking for a support group.

Some organizations provide other types of support for people with cancer. For example, if your treatment center is far away, a local nonprofit might offer temporary housing. Talk to your doctor about services in your area.

You also might want to try one-on-one therapy or call a cancer hotline.

Remember, it’s OK to ask family and friends for help. Your loved ones can help by cooking meals, giving you rides to treatment, or going to doctor appointments with you. They can also talk with you about your feelings or distract you with a fun activity.

Take care of yourself. Self-care looks different for everyone. Set aside time for things that make you happy, whether that’s reading a book or riding a bike. You can also try meditation, mindfulness, or yoga. Don’t forget to eat a healthy diet and get enough sleep.

Make a plan. Most people continue to live a healthy and happy life after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. But it is important to talk to your loved ones about your wishes if treatment doesn’t work.

Consider signing advance directives. These legal documents can guide your treatment if you’re unable to tell others what you want. For example, a living will can show whether you want to be placed on a ventilator in an emergency. You can also give a loved one medical power of attorney, which means they can make health care choices for you if you are unable.