What is the Ovarian Cancer Survival Rate?


Numbers of patients diagnosed with ovarian cancer are increasing, with Cancer Australia reporting over 1,500 cases and 1,068 deaths per year. Upon an ovarian cancer diagnosis I am commonly asked: “What is the likelihood that I will survive this cancer?”

Relative survival rates provide an estimate of what percentage of people with the same cancer are alive (for benchmarking we normally report data at 5 years) after the initial diagnosis of cancer, compared to healthy people of the same age and sex in the general population. Survival rates will not tell you how long you may live, but can be used as an indicator of the successfulness of treatments.

Five-year Survival Rate

In 2011–2015, females diagnosed with all types and stages of ovarian cancer combined had an overall 46% chance of surviving for five years compared to the general Australian population. In context with other cancers, the five-year survival rate for breast cancer is 91%.

Why is the survival rate low?

Uterus Drawing on a WomanThe poorer survival rates for ovarian cancer may be due to the lack of effective screening and the presentation of symptoms at a later stage.

Ovarian cancer symptoms can be vague even in early stages. Symptoms include:

  • abdominal bloating
  • feeling full quickly after eating a small amount
  • unexplained weight loss
  • discomfort or pain in the pelvis
  • changes in bowel habits
  • a frequent need to urinate.

These symptoms can also be confused with other benign conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, an upset stomach or bladder infections; however it is important to see a doctor if symptoms are persistent.

In hindsight, almost all ovarian cancer patients display some of these signs.

Factors Contributing to Survival

Ovarian cancer prognosis also depends on a range of factors, including the characteristics of the patient (age, lifestyle and other illnesses), the type of ovarian cancer (epithelial, non-epithelial, borderline) and at what stage the cancer is diagnosed. Those diagnosed with ovarian cancer at an older age typically have a poorer diagnosis than those diagnosed at a younger age.

The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) reports those diagnosed with stage I cancer before the cancer spreads outside the ovary, have a relative five-year survival rate of 92%. Survival for stage 3 or 4 ovarian cancer depends on how successful surgery has been and how much tumour had to be left behind after surgery, but also depends on the response of the cancer to chemotherapy. FIGO reports the five-year survival rate of distant (late-stage) ovarian cancer is 30%.

Research also has shown that patients treated by experienced teams who manage ovarian cancer patients frequently, do better than patients managed by surgeons who only see a few ovarian cancer patients in their lifetime.

Ovarian Cancer Treatment

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has found survival rates for ovarian cancer have improved over time due to more accurate investigation, diagnosis and staging of disease, improvements in the speed of referral, availability of evidence-based guidelines, and advances in surgery and chemotherapy.

The key to successful ovarian cancer treatment is the combination of surgery plus chemotherapy. Surgery for ovarian cancer will typically remove the uterus, fallopian tubes and both the ovaries. Commonly the omentum and lymph nodes will need to be removed also. Sometimes, patients will require a bowel resection. Almost all patients will require chemotherapy after surgery.

Will My Cancer Come Back?

Cancer of all types and stages may recur. Recurrence may be local or in the pelvis or at distant sites (such as the abdomen or lungs). After surgery for ovarian cancer, it is important to see an ovarian cancer specialist for a period of five years for follow-up. After five years, the risk of a recurrence becomes much lower. 

Survival rates are a guide only and you may have worries or questions. A gynaecological oncologist can discuss how these estimates apply to you. If this is something you wish to discuss, please arrange an appointment.

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