What To Expect During Treatment For Ovarian Cancer, According To An Oncologist

Nearly 20,000 American women will learn that they have ovarian cancer this year, according to an estimate made by the American Cancer Society. And while the diagnosis can feel earth-shattering, ovarian cancer treatment often produces encouraging results — especially when the cancer is caught early.

Epithelial ovarian cancer — which begins in the tissue surrounding the ovaries and grows slowly — is the most prevalent kind of ovarian cancer, accounting for 90% of cases (per Cleveland Clinic). Because most women don't find out about their condition until after the cancer has reached the ovaries and metastasized, a combination of different treatment modalities is often recommended.

We know that the idea of undergoing cancer treatment can be scary — but sometimes, knowing what to expect makes it a little less so. In an exclusive interview with Health Digest, Dr. Elena Ratner, a gynecologic oncologist at the Yale Cancer Center and professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive services at Yale School of Medicine, explains what ovarian cancer treatment entails and what you can expect throughout the duration of it.

How is ovarian cancer treated?

While there are a few different ways to treat cancer, doctors have found that in the treatment of ovarian cancer, a combination of surgery and chemotherapy is the most effective. "Treatment for ovarian cancer consists of a surgical intervention, called surgical debulking, where all the cancer is removed during surgery," says Dr. Ratner. "Either before then or after that, the patient is also offered chemotherapy."

While this is the standard treatment for ovarian cancer, Dr. Ratner says that patients should also be prepared to undergo additional genomic testing. During genomic testing, your doctor will get a full scope of your genetic code, and from that, will be able to get a better understanding of how likely the cancer is to grow and spread, and what targeted treatment options will work best for your body.

"Treatment of ovarian cancer usually consists of six cycles of chemotherapy, usually given three weeks apart," she notes. "Surgery happens either before or during this treatment." Because ovarian cancer is often discovered in an advanced stage, Dr. Ratner says that maintenance therapy might be offered following treatment. Maintenance therapy often entails some other form of treatment designed to delay the progression of the cancer after chemotherapy has shrunken it and stopped it from spreading.

What are the side effects of ovarian cancer treatment?

Knowing exactly what to expect during chemotherapy can be a challenge, as different chemotherapies come with different side effects. However Dr. Ratner says, "We are currently much better in managing toxicity and side effects from the therapy that we used to be in the past. Many times, chemotherapy side effects now can be avoided and prevented with aggressive, supportive measures."

Dr. Ratner notes that the most common side effect women experience while undergoing chemotherapy is fatigue. "Sometimes women also experience some numbness in the hands and feet, and some nausea. Unfortunately, hair loss is also something that women experience with chemotherapy. The hair does return when chemotherapy is completed," she says.

Because of the toxic nature of chemotherapy, Dr. Ratner adds, "The patient is carefully monitored for side effects and toxicity. There are times when the treatment might be postponed and very rarely canceled." However, she points out, "Most women tolerate chemotherapy very well, and [are] able to complete the treatment."