Breast cancer awareness efforts have grown dramatically over the last two decades, leading to a greater knowledge of breast cancer symptoms and the need for routine screening. Unfortunately, that same level of awareness does not yet exist for ovarian cancer, and many U.S. women remain in the dark about how to detect this most malignant form of gynecological cancer. Only 20 percent of ovarian cancers are diagnosed at an early stage.
Subtle, Not Silent
Part of the problem is no effective screening tool for ovarian cancer currently exists. Some ovarian tumors can be identified through a pelvic exam or Pap test, but these tests often do not detect suspicious masses until they have already progressed to a large size.
That is why it is so important for women to know the early warning signs of ovarian cancer and notify their gynecologist or primary care provider (PCP) as soon as possible if symptoms occur. Contrary to its reputation as a “silent killer,” ovarian cancer actually can be symptomatic. The problem is that many of its symptoms can be caused by other, less severe health conditions. These symptoms might include:
- Bloating or swelling in the abdominal area. You may notice your pants getting tighter around the waist, despite making no changes to your diet or activity level. You may even lose weight and still have abdominal swelling.
- Increased urinary urgency or frequency
- Pain during sex
- Pain in the pelvis, abdomen or back
- Trouble eating
- Feeling full quickly when eating
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Unexplained vaginal bleeding
- Menstrual changes
Know Your Risks
Even if you do not suspect ovarian cancer as a source of symptoms, you should still share your symptoms with your PCP, especially if they persist for more than two weeks. Most women with the symptoms do not have ovarian cancer, but for the small number who do, detection can be lifesaving. Your PCP will determine if laparoscopy or open surgery to check for ovarian cancer is worthwhile. The decision may depend on whether or not you have more risk factors for ovarian cancer than average.
You may be more at risk for ovarian cancer if:
- You are older. According to the American Cancer Society, most ovarian cancers develop in post-menopausal women. Half of ovarian cancers occur in women older than 62.
- You are obese, meaning your body mass index (also known as BMI) is 30 or higher.
- You have never given birth. Overall risk for developing ovarian cancer decreases with each full-term pregnancy.
- You have not used birth control. Women who take oral contraceptives have a lower risk.
- You have used fertility drugs or estrogen therapy.
- You have a family history of ovarian, breast or colorectal cancer.
- You have a personal history of breast cancer.