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Coping with the Side Effects of Surgery for Ovarian Cancer


Photo by Cancer Type

Keeping a diary is a good way to keep track of the side effects that you experience.

Treatment for ovarian cancer usually involves surgery followed by chemotherapy. You may experience physical, emotional, and psychological side effects related to your cancer and the treatment of your specific disease. The key to proactively managing side effects begins with good communication with the healthcare team.

Although your doctor or nurse may not ask you about specific side effects, it is extremely important for you to bring them to the attention of your healthcare team. Often, people under report side effects because they do not want to be viewed as weak or as complaining. Some side effects may be easily controlled or even stopped; others may be more serious in nature and require additional supportive care. Your job is to report the side effects. Your healthcare team will then work with you to help treat and hopefully resolve them.

The best way to communicate to your healthcare team is by providing specific information about bothersome side effects. Keeping a diary is a good way to make sure that information about the side effects that you experience is written down in one place.

Loss of fertility due to surgery for ovarian cancer can be one of the most difficult issues that women face.

Surgery is the cornerstone of most treatment for ovarian cancer. It is important to recognize that some surgical side effects can significantly impact your emotional and physical quality of life.

Loss of Fertility
In addition to dealing with a new diagnosis of cancer, loss of fertility due to surgery for ovarian cancer can be one of the most difficult issues that women face. Women who have not completed childbearing or who have not yet begun to start their families may experience the loss of fertility in different ways. It is important for these women to have strong support systems, such as family members and counselors. Additionally, support groups such as Resolve: The National Infertility Association ( and Fertile Hope, a nonprofit advocacy group that tries to improve healthcare and insurance coverage for cancer-related infertility (, offer resources to help women and their partners.

Surgical Menopause
Surgery for ovarian cancer may result in what is called a surgical menopause. Unlike natural menopause in which menopausal symptoms may occur gradually over time, women experiencing surgical menopause may find that these symptoms are more immediate and profound.

In addition to menopausal symptoms, women need to be aware of the increased risk of heart disease and osteoporosis resulting from the loss of estrogen. Because the decision to use hormone replacement therapy needs to be made based upon a woman’s individual symptoms and health concerns, you should check with your doctor to see whether hormone replacement therapy is right for you.

Other things that you can do to minimize your risk of heart disease and osteoporosis include doing weight-bearing exercise on a regular basis, eating a healthy and balanced diet, and taking calcium supplements.

Sexual Concerns
If you have experienced loss of desire for sex, you are not alone. This is one of the most common sexual problems of women with ovarian cancer. Many women are reluctant to ask their healthcare team questions or mention sexual problems. Gather up your courage and ask anyway! Your healthcare provider can provide information about the possible causes of sexual problems and changes, and may have suggestions for how you can overcome them.

Bowel Obstruction
Bowel obstruction due to surgery happens when scar tissue grows into the intestine, causing the intestine to become blocked. This can result in severe constipation, abdominal cramping, nausea, and vomiting. These symptoms need to be reported to your doctor immediately; he or she will determine whether simple dietary changes might help relieve the obstruction or whether more aggressive medical or surgical interventions may be necessary.

A bowel obstruction can also occur due to involvement of the bowel with tumor. In addition to nausea and vomiting, women with bowel obstruction can also experience severe pain and constipation. Report these symptoms to your doctor immediately. Sometimes a low residue/low fiber diet can help. In other cases, surgery may need to be performed. The decision for surgery will depend on a variety of factors, including how you feel, what your imaging studies look like, the status of your cancer, and how you respond to less aggressive interventions.

Undergoing surgery for an ostomy can be a difficult experience. Whether this change in your life is temporary or permanent, it still takes some getting used to. Most hospitals have ostomy nurses to help people learn about care and management of their ostomy. Check with your enterostomal (ET) nurse to see if he or she knows a person with an ostomy who might be willing to talk with you. Talking with someone in the same situation can often help address your concerns.

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For more information on ovarian cancer, visit the National Ovarial Cancer Coalition at

Excerpted with permission from Ovarian Cancer: Quality of Life Issues, copyright ©, by the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2011.