The ovaries | Cancer Research UK
Cancer Research UK on Google+ Cancer Research UK on Facebook Cancer Research UK on Twitter

The ovaries

Women discussing ovarian cancer

This page tells you about the ovaries and how they work. You can find the following information

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

The ovaries

The ovaries are part of a woman's reproductive system. The reproductive system is made up of the vagina, womb or uterus (which includes the cervix), fallopian tubes and ovaries.

There are 2 ovaries, one on each side of the body. The ovaries produce an egg each month in fertile women. The ovaries also produce the female sex hormones, oestrogen and progesterone. Your ovaries produce these hormones throughout the years of your life when it is possible for you to become pregnant. The hormones control your menstrual cycle. As you get older and menopause approaches, the ovaries make less and less of these hormones and periods eventually stop altogether.

Ovarian cysts

Before the menopause, fertile women develop cysts in the ovary every month as an egg develops. These normally disappear within a few months. Cysts are fluid filled sacks. They are not usually cancerous. But they should be investigated if they are there for longer than normal, are unusually large, cause symptoms or if you get them when you are post menopausal.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the about ovarian cancer section.

 

 

The ovaries and reproductive system

The ovaries are part of a woman's reproductive system. The reproductive system is made up of the

  • Vagina
  • Womb or uterus (which includes the cervix)
  • Fallopian tubes
  • Ovaries

There are 2 ovaries, one on each side of the body. The ovaries produce an egg each month in women of childbearing age.

Diagram showing the parts of the female reproductive system

 

The ovaries and fertility

Women are able to have children between puberty (when the periods start) and the menopause (or change of life, when the periods stop). The age when periods start and stop varies a great deal.

In the middle of each menstrual cycle (mid way between periods), an egg travels down one of the fallopian tubes and into the womb. The lining of the womb gets thicker and thicker, ready to receive the fertilised egg. If this egg is not fertilised by sperm, the thickened lining of the womb is shed as a period. Then the whole cycle begins again.

 

Ovarian hormones

The ovaries also produce the female sex hormones. These are

  • Oestrogen
  • Progesterone

The ovaries produce these hormones throughout the years when women can become pregnant. The hormones control the menstrual cycle. As you get older and closer to menopause, the ovaries make less and less of these hormones and periods eventually stop.

More recently doctors have learned that ovarian hormones also help to protect the heart and bones and maintain brain and immune system health.

The ovaries also produce a small amount of the male hormone testosterone. It is not completely clear what role testosterone has in women. But doctors think it helps with muscle and bone strength. And it may have a role in a woman’s sex drive (libido).

 

Ovarian cysts

In young women the ovaries are about 3cm long. After the menopause they tend to shrink. Doctors cannot usually feel the ovaries during a medical examination, except in young, thin women. Some women have cysts on their ovaries. Cysts are fluid filled sacks. They are not usually cancerous.

In women of childbearing age, small cysts develop in the ovary every month as an egg develops. This is normal and they usually disappear without treatment within a few months. You should have tests if the cysts

  • Are there for longer than normal
  • Are unusually large
  • Cause symptoms
  • Develop when you are past your menopause
Rate this page:
Submit rating

 

Rated 4 out of 5 based on 42 votes
Rate this page
Rate this page for no comments box
Please enter feedback to continue submitting
Send feedback
Question about cancer? Contact our information nurse team

No Error

Updated: 3 March 2016