Chemotherapy and ovarian cancer

Most women with ovarian cancer are offered chemotherapy.  Chemotherapy is given to reduce any disease that remains after surgery or to reduce the likelihood of the cancer returning.

You can download our leaflet for more information about chemotherapy for ovarian cancer.

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy works by attacking cells that divide rapidly. 

Cancer cells behave in this way.  

If your cancer has been discovered at an early stage you may not require chemotherapy.  However, most patients need to have some chemotherapy and this is usually started after surgery.

In some cases, chemotherapy is given first and surgery is carried out afterwards. Other treatments you may have heard of, such as radiotherapy, may not be suitable for treating your type of ovarian cancer.

There are many different chemotherapy drugs available.  The two most common treatments for epithelial ovarian cancer at first presentation are:

  • Paclitaxel with carboplatin; or
  • Single agent carboplatin

Germ cell ovarian cancer is most commonly treated with a combination of the drugs bleomcyin, etoposide and cisplatin (referred to as BEP).

Sex cord stromal ovarian tumours are not usually treated with chemotherapy.  If chemotherapy is required, the drug combinations used are either:

  • Carboplatin with paclitaxel; or
  • Bleomcyin, etoposide and cisplatin (BEP)

How is chemotherapy given?

Chemotherapy drugs are usually given by mouth or injected into a vein which enables them to enter the bloodstream in order to kill cancer cells.

Paclitaxel and carboplatin are injected into the vein.  The treatment is generally given in a specialist day ward but you may require a short stay in hospital. 

Chemotherapy known as intraperitoneal chemotherapy can also be delivered directly into the abdomen.  This method delivers the drugs to the site of the cancer cells which can reduce some side effects.

Chemotherapy is usually given in cycles of treatment followed by a rest period that allows normal cells to recover from the effect of the drugs.  A typical course of chemotherapy for ovarian cancer involves six cycles. Each cycle lasts 3 or 4 weeks and there are usually 6 cycles in total.

How is chemotherapy monitored?

Chemotherapy patients are monitored regularly to check how well the treatment is working and the general wellbeing of the patient.  Treatment is monitored in several ways:

  • Regular CA125 blood tests (your CA125 blood level should decrease if your treatment is successful)
  • CT or ultrasound scans (to see if the cancer has reduced)
  • Periodic blood counts (to check the recovery rates of blood cells in the bone marrow)

What happens after chemotherapy?

When you’ve finished chemotherapy, you will have check-ups every three months, and then every six months if you’re still cancer free.

If you’re cancer free after ten years (or five years for early stage ovarian cancer), you’ll be considered to be in remission and you’ll no longer need regular check-ups.  

However, you should keep an eye on your health and visit your GP as soon as possible if you notice any symptoms.