The initial treatment for ovarian cancer usually includes:
- surgery (a procedure to remove as much of the affected areas as possible)
- chemotherapy (a type of drug given to kill cancer cells)
You may be advised to have surgery first (known as primary debulking surgery) followed by chemotherapy. Or you may need some chemotherapy before the surgery, followed by more chemotherapy. This is known as interval debulking surgery.
Your medical team will have a detailed discussion with you about your treatment options. This will include options to preserve fertility where possible, so that you may still be able to have a child in the future. You should raise any specific concerns you may have with them.
Surgery for ovarian cancer
Surgery normally includes removing:
- the uterus (womb) and cervix (this is a total hysterectomy)
- both ovaries and fallopian tubes (this is a bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy)
- the omentum – a layer of fatty tissue that covers and protects the organs in your lower abdomen (tummy)
It may also involve removing:
- some lymph nodes (glands that help to fight infection) to look for spread of the cancer
- cancer from the peritoneum (the lining that covers the organs inside your abdomen/tummy)
- other abdominal organs that appear to be affected and the lining of your diaphragm (a muscle under your lungs)
Removal of these organs can have side effects. For example, if your surgery has involved removing sections of the lymphatic system (like lymph nodes) you may be at risk of lymphoedema. If possible, your surgeon will discuss these with you beforehand.
Your surgeon will discuss with you which organs they plan to remove during the operation. In some cases of ovarian cancer, particularly with germ cell tumours, it may be possible to remove only the affected ovary and fallopian tube. This may be all the surgery that is required.
Surgery and menopause
The menopause usually happens naturally between the ages of 45–55 when levels of the female hormone oestrogen gradually decline and periods stop. If you have surgery to remove your ovaries you'll experience a surgical menopause. This can be overwhelming. If possible, you should discuss how best to manage this with your medical team beforehand.
Surgery and fertility
Having treatment for ovarian cancer treatment can affect your fertility (your ability to have children). If possible, it's important to talk about your fertility with your medical team before treatment starts.
Chemotherapy for ovarian cancer
Chemotherapy for ovarian cancer is given to kill any cancer cells that may remain after surgery or to shrink the tumour to make it easier for the surgeon to remove. The drugs are given through a drip into a vein (a blood vessel that takes blood to your heart). The treatment will be given over several hours and the whole process usually takes up most of the day.
Usually you will be offered a mix of carboplatin (a platinum-based chemotherapy) and paclitaxel (a taxane). These are commonly referred to as Carbo® or Taxol®. If you've been diagnosed with a germ cell tumour, you may be offered bleomycin, eptoposide and platinum (BEP). Sometimes carboplatin will be recommended on its own, for example if you:
- have other health problems that make taxane treatment unsafe
- have an early stage cancer that only requires platinum chemotherapy
- in discussion with your oncologist, choose to only have carboplatin
There may also be other treatment options or you may be eligible to take part in a clinical trial. You can ask your oncologist what options are available to you. They will always be happy to discuss these with you.
Your oncologist may suggest using a maintenance (or targeted) treatment after chemotherapy. This will depend on your type of ovarian cancer. Maintenance treatments are used to reduce the risk of, or delay, the cancer coming back.
How will chemotherapy affect me?
Chemotherapy affects people in different ways. Some people will experience more side effects than others. There are many different medications to help relieve any side effects you may experience. So do ask your chemotherapy team if you need help. You may also have a higher chance of developing an infection when having chemotherapy. Your team can tell you how best to protect yourself and what action to take if you think you may have an infection.
Possible side effects
- Feeling or being sick – you'll be given anti-sickness medication before chemotherapy and to take home. If you're sick you need to contact your chemotherapy team and they'll change your prescription.
- Losing your hair – chemotherapy can cause you to lose your hair. Hair loss can sometimes be reduced using a cold cap. Ask your medical team if this is appropriate for you. Speak to them about a referral for a wig if this is something that worries you.
- Memory loss or 'chemo brain' – this is quite common after cancer treatment. It includes changes in memory, concentration and thinking. It can be very frustrating, but for most people it will improve with time.
- Tiredness and fatigue – you may feel very tired during chemotherapy, so it's important to plan time to recover your energy. Keeping a diary can help you identify patterns so you know when your best and worst days are and plan ahead.
- Changes to your weight – you may experience weight loss as appetite can be affected by treatment. Weight gain can also occur as a side effect of anti-sickness drugs (steroids) given with chemotherapy. Steroids can stimulate appetite and cause fluid retention. Your clinical nurse specialist (CNS) and local cancer centres or dietitian can give advice to help you maintain good nutrition during chemotherapy. You can also watch our diet and nutrition event for more advice on eating well during treatment.
- Some people have an allergic reaction to chemotherapy. Find out from your treatment team what treatment you may be offered if you have an allergic reaction.
You can contact Target Ovarian Cancer's support line, Monday to Friday, 9am to 5.30pm, and speak to one of our specialist nurses if you have any questions or concerns about treatment. Call 020 7923 5475. You may also find it helpful to:
You might want to use complementary therapies alongside your hospital treatments to help you relax or to ease symptoms and side effects. Some complementary therapies are common, like massage and acupuncture, and some you may not have heard of before. All of these therapies can help improve your mood and deal with problems like sickness or pain.
None of these therapies should replace your actual treatment, but they may give you an extra boost. As cancer is a complex condition, it's important to use a registered therapist and always keep your clinical nurse specialist and oncologist aware.
More information and support
Our expert mini guide can answer your questions about the use of complementary therapies after an ovarian cancer diagnosis, including what complementary therapies are, the difference between complementary and alternative therapies, and how and where you can find out more. Read 'Ovarian cancer and complementary therapies' [PDF]or order a copy.
Most hospitals have links with a local cancer support centre, which might offer a range of therapies on site for free.
Cancer Research UK has detailed information about each therapy on its website.
Therapy Directory connects you with a qualified therapist most suited to your needs. All the therapists on the website have shown proof of qualifications and/or membership with a professional body. They list many therapies from aromatherapy to reflexology.
Last reviewed: January 2022
To learn more about our review process, take a look at our information standards.