Ovarian cancer is difficult to diagnose in its early stages. There is no real screening test for early detection, and the symptoms are vague and easily mistaken for normal gastrointestinal problems such as constipation and bloating.
But this does not mean that women are powerless. Knowing the symptoms and risk factors of ovarian cancer is the best defense against the disease.
Symptoms of ovarian cancer
Pelvic exams are important to a woman’s health, but unfortunately, most ovarian tumors are difficult to detect. Health care providers screen for cervical cancer, such as Pap and HPV (human papillomavirus), but not for ovarian cancer. In most cases, ovarian cancer is diagnosed when a woman undergoes an ultrasound or CT scan. All this means that the diagnosis often comes late, when the cancer has progressed and is likely to spread to other parts of the body.
There are many warning signs of non-cancerous conditions, but if you’re experiencing any of these common ovarian cancer symptoms and they’re more or more frequent than usual, talk to your family doctor or gynecologist.
Abdominal or pelvic pain
Difficulty eating / loss of appetite
Feeling full after eating a small amount of food (early satiety)
Urinary output or frequency
You may also experience:
Changes in periods such as heavy bleeding or irregularity
Abdominal tumors occur during weight loss
Risk factors for ovarian cancer
Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer death in women, but a woman’s lifetime risk remains relatively low, according to the American Cancer Society. In the United States, less than 1% of women without a family history or additional risk factors are diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
Ovarian cancer usually occurs in postmenopausal women and increases with age. Half of all ovarian cancers occur in women age 63 and older, and the disease affects white women more than black women.
Other factors that may increase your risk include:
Obesity or overweight
Having your first child after age 35 or never being able to conceive
Use of hormonal preparations after menopause
Family history of ovarian, breast, endometrial, or colon cancer
BRCA1 and BRCA2, hereditary gene mutations associated with Lynch syndrome and other cancers
A personal history of breast cancer
Smoking increases the risk of certain types of cancer. In addition, an increased risk may be associated with the use of:
In Vitro Fertilization Treatment (IVF)
Hormone replacement therapy
Factors that reduce the risk of ovarian cancer
For women at low risk of ovarian cancer:
Giving birth before the age of 26 (the risk decreases with each subsequent full-term pregnancy)
Taking birth control pills (birth control pills)
Use of a short-term IUD (intrauterine device).
Pelvic surgery, such as tubal ligation (tying of the fallopian tubes) or hysterectomy (removal of the uterus) or removal of the ovaries.
As mentioned above, ovarian cancer can be hereditary. Women with a family history of cancer or genetic syndromes should ask about genetic counseling and testing.
Genetic testing is also important after an ovarian cancer diagnosis. Your treatment will include removing the tumor(s) and possibly chemotherapy, depending on how much cancer is in your body and where it is located. You can help yourself and others by getting tested for genetic mutations that may run in families, such as BRCA1 (breast cancer gene 1) or BRCA2.
Get an annual pelvic exam, know the risk factors and symptoms of ovarian cancer, and trust your gut. You know your body. If something is wrong, ask for help.
Ovarian cancer is difficult to diagnose. However, being in tune with your body, sharing knowledge with friends and family, and talking to your health care provider if something happens can make a positive difference in your fight against ovarian cancer.