What Are the Warning Signs of Ovarian Cancer?
Ovarian cancer occurs when there are mutations of abnormal cells in the ovaries. While it usually happens later in life in post-menopausal women, ovarian cancer can occur at any age. Roughly 21,000 women a year are diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the United States.
Unfortunately, the earliest warning signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer are often easy to miss. The vague nature of early symptoms can easily be mistaken for other conditions or not even noticed at all. Early detection is critical, so we’re taking a look at the early signs of ovarian cancer along with common later symptoms, risk factors and preventative measures.
Early Warning Signs of Ovarian Cancer
Unfortunately, women are more likely to notice symptoms of ovarian cancer once the cancer has started to spread beyond the ovaries, or metastasized. Only about 20% of ovarian cancer cases are diagnosed in the early stages, mainly because early symptoms are easy to miss.
For example, some of the earliest warning signs include relatively common discomforts, such as excessive fullness after eating, bloating, fatigue, heartburn, indigestion, constipation and back pain. Menstrual irregularities and increased frequency of urination are also symptoms that don’t necessarily seem out of the ordinary in older women who make up the largest percentage of ovarian cancer cases.
Of the early symptoms, those related to diet and eating, such as loss of appetite, weight loss and difficulty eating, are a bit easier to notice. Pain of any kind, such as abdominal pain and pain during and after sexual intercourse, always requires further investigation.
If you experience several of these symptoms at once or experience symptoms for several days, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about it. Many women are under the false impression that a routine Pap smear checks for ovarian cancer, and that is not the case. The Pap smear only checks for signs of cervical cancer. You will need a complete pelvic exam and a blood test called CA-125 to check for ovarian cancer.
Cysts, Masses or Tumors Related to Ovarian Cancer
Patients experience different types of symptoms if ovarian cancer has advanced to the point where there are cysts, masses or tumors growing as a result of the disease. These symptoms tend to be more noticeable and painful, typically prompting women to schedule checkups with their physicians.
Some of the noticeable symptoms at this more advanced stage include increased pelvic pain or pressure as well as dull pain in the thighs and back. Some women experience more noticeable menstrual irregularities, such as abnormal bleeding or pain prior to the beginning of a period. Nausea, vomiting and difficulty urinating are also possible symptoms. If you suspect you could have a mass or tumor, let your gynecologist know right away so you can schedule an ultrasound.
What Are the Risk Factors for Ovarian Cancer?
While the exact causes of ovarian cancer are unknown, certain risk factors definitely contribute to the likelihood of developing the disease. Women over the age of 55 — particularly those who have gone through menopause — are more likely to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Additionally, a family history of ovarian cancer is a significant risk factor.
Scientists have determined that genetics sometimes play a role in increasing risk. For example, having the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene is a risk factor. You can have genetic testing performed to see if you have those mutations, which also put you at greater risk for breast cancer. Other risk factors include a personal history of breast, colon or uterine cancer, endometriosis, obesity, and no prior pregnancies.
Preventative Measures for Ovarian Cancer
Because the exact cause of ovarian cancer can’t be pinpointed, it’s difficult to advise patients of preventative actions they can take against developing ovarian cancer. However, there are some steps women can take to lower their risk — at least to some degree.
Pregnancy and breastfeeding are associated with a lower risk of developing ovarian cancer. Taking oral contraceptives, which contain hormones, also correlates with a lower risk. Reproductive surgery, such as tubal ligations, also affect hormone levels and could decrease the risk of ovarian cancer. Overall, it’s a good rule of thumb to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle and schedule regular checkup appointments with your various health care providers.
What Are Available Treatments for Ovarian Cancer?
Ovarian cancer treatment depends on the stage of the cancer and whether it has traveled to other parts of the body at the time of diagnosis. If the cancer has spread to other organs, the outlook is poor to fair. If the cancer is still localized to the ovaries, several treatment options are available, including surgery to remove the tumor/mass or the ovaries entirely, hormone therapy, chemotherapy and radiation.
Surgery is the most common treatment for ovarian cancer. In many cases, there are several tumors, so finding and removing them all is quite difficult. A complete hysterectomy is often warranted to ensure all the cancer cells are removed.