The Subtle Signs of Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer signs and symptoms that every woman needs to be aware of

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

There is so much going on in a woman’s body, it‘s easy to overlook symptoms that are just annoying. Maybe you feel full early on as you’re eating a meal. Or you notice that you’re bloated. Then, for no particular reason, your jeans are tighter than usual.

You may not notice these symptoms or think they're no big deal. You might chalk them up to your period, or hormones, or stress or diet or you name it.

You would do well not to ignore your body – the unexplained bloating, changes in eating and widening of the abdomen could be something as serious as ovarian cancer.

The ovaries

Your ovaries are the organs that allow you to have children. The two small, almond-shaped organs that fit alongside the uterus contain your eggs. Every month during ovulation, one egg is released and travels though a fallopian tube to the uterus where it can be fertilized by a man’s sperm.

The ovaries are also the glands that produce female hormones – estrogen and progesterone. These sex hormones play a role in body shape, amount of body hair and breast growth. Estrogen and progesterone also regulate a woman’s periods and her pregnancies.  

And once the ovaries stop releasing eggs, you go into menopause – you stop menstruating and can’t get pregnant when the ovaries retire or are surgically removed.

Ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer can be deadly, but if it’s caught early, the chances of beating ovarian cancer are outstanding.

There are no effective means of screening for ovarian cancer, so it’s often detected after the disease has taken hold and is well established in the body. By the time it's been noticed, the cancer may have already started to spread.

Among women diagnosed with ovarian cancer, the overall one-year survival rate is 75 percent. The overall five-year survival rate is 44 percent.

But when ovarian cancer is caught early, the five-year survival rate is 92 percent.

Women of any age can be diagnosed with ovarian cancer, but it’s more common in women over the age of 55 (68 percent) than in women younger than 55 (32 percent).

Ovarian cancer symptoms

dailyRx News spoke with an expert in gynecologic cancers – Iris Romero, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics/gynecology at the University of Chicago.

We asked her about the major symptoms she sees when diagnosing ovarian cancer. She told us that feeling full early, bloating and increased abdominal girth are the ones she sees most often.

Don’t ignore these symptoms if they last longer than 2 weeks!

  • Abdominal or pelvic pain
  • Widening of the abdomen
  • Bloating
  • Changes in urinary habits – having an urgent need to pee or urinating more often
  • Difficulty eating - feeling full sooner than usual
  • Indigestion
  • Fatigue – being really tired in a way that’s unusual for you
  • Back pain
  • Painful intercourse
  • Changes in menstrual cycles

Even though these may be fairly common symptoms associated with other things, Dr. Romero says these changes need to be checked out without delay. “Symptoms that do not resolve after a couple of weeks should be evaluated by a gynecologist,” Dr. Romero says.

Sometimes  - but not often – women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer without having any symptoms. “There is not an adequate screening test for ovarian cancer; therefore not many patients are diagnosed before they have symptoms,” Dr. Romero said.

“Occasionally a patient will be undergoing surgery for something else and then be found to have ovarian cancer. When this occurs, the patient needs to be referred to a physician that specializes in gynecology oncology for further evaluation and treatment,” she said.

Genetic risks

Women who have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer need to take extra precautions, Dr. Romero advises.

“Patients with a first degree relative with ovarian cancer or several relatives on one side of the family with breast and ovarian cancer should seek care from a center that focuses on cancer prevention and treatment," according to Dr. Romero.

"The patient should have a consultation from a cancer genetic clinic to discuss the possibility of a genetic mutation (i.e., BRCA) in the family that increases the risk of cancer. Specific recommendations can be made regarding prevention and screening for both breast and ovarian cancer based on this information," Dr. Romero said.

Diagnosing ovarian cancer

The tests to detect this female cancer are minimally invasive.

“The three tools used to diagnose ovarian cancer are pelvic exam by a gynecologist, pelvic ultrasound and CA125 blood test.  These three methods used together in the setting of a patient with concerning symptoms is quite effective at diagnosing ovarian cancer,” Dr. Romero explained. “Unfortunately, this approach is not effective in screening asymptomatic women because it produces in an excessive number of false-positive results.”

Advice to women

We asked Dr. Romero what her general advice to women is regarding ovarian cancer.

“Do not ignore subtle but persistent symptoms and don't let your physician ignore them either. If you do have persistently increased abdominal girth (your pants suddenly don't fit), you get full quickly when eating, or you are bloated for greater than two weeks, then see a gynecologist and tell them you are concerned about ovarian cancer and would like to be evaluated.”

So the advice is pretty simple and applies to women’s health in general.

You know your body better than anyone else. Pay attention to changes that don’t get better in a couple of weeks, and be proactive in seeking the care you need.

Review Date: 
February 28, 2013