We women often ignore discomfort, especially in our abdomen. We dismiss it as period pain or just an upset tummy, but when it comes to ovarian cancer those little twinges are sometimes our only warnings.
Ovarian cancer makes up only 3% of cancer in women, but it causes more deaths than any other type of gynecological cancer and is the 5th leading cause of all cancer-related deaths in women. These statistics might be a little scary but the hidden danger of ovarian cancer is that many women don’t realize they have it until the later stages – just another reason to listen to your body and get checked out if you feel off.
90% of ovarian cancers found early are curable so it’s even more important to know your risks and what signs to look for.
Cancer and Your Ovaries
Our cells are constantly growing, dividing, dying, and then replaced by new, healthy cells. Cancer occurs when abnormal cells don’t die but continue to divide and eventually create a mass of tissue (a tumor) and/or spread to other parts of the body.
Your ovaries, the two almond-sized organs attached to your uterus, produce eggs and hormones that help you get pregnant. Each month your ovaries release an egg, which must be forced out through the surface of the ovary and can cause damage to the tissue. That damage has to be repaired and with each ovulation is believed to create a greater chance of abnormal cell growth and a higher chance of cancer.
Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer
Early ovarian cancer often shows no symptoms and even late-stage symptoms can be mistaken for other conditions. However, signs of ovarian cancer are different from your normal digestive or menstrual problems: they’re persistent, meaning they don’t go away with normal treatment or changes like modifying your diet, exercise, rest, or over-the-counter laxatives. Some of the most common symptoms include:
- Bloating and constipation
- Pelvic or abdominal pain outside of menstruation
- Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
- Needing to urinate often or urgently
- Menstrual changes
- Upset stomach or heartburn
- Back pain
- Pain during sex
If you experience one or more of these symptoms daily or almost daily for 2 weeks or more, you should make an appointment with your doctor.
Recognizing the signs of ovarian cancer can be difficult, but being aware of the risk factors can be your first line of defense. Knowing if you fall into any risk categories can help you be more vigilant and recognize symptoms if they occur. Some of the biggest risk factors for ovarian cancer are:
- Being past middle age. Women can have ovarian cancer at any age, but most ovarian cancers develop after menopause and half of all ovarian cancers are found in women 63 years of age and older.
- Not having children. Women who have had children (especially before age 26) have a lower risk and risk decreases with each full-term pregnancy. Breastfeeding may also lower your probability.
- Not using hormonal birth control. Women who use oral contraceptives have lower risk – with benefits seen after only 3-6 months of use. The injection has also been found to lower risk, with increased benefits after 3 years. Some scientists believe that because birth control (like pregnancy and breastfeeding) can stop ovulation, it decreases the risk of abnormal cell growth. Fewer ovulations might mean a lower risk.
- Family history & genetics. If anyone in your family (on either side) has had ovarian cancer your risk is higher. Certain inherited mutations in your genes, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2 (the breast cancer genes), can also increase your risk for both ovarian cancer and other types of cancer. So talk to your family about any cancer in your family tree, and consider getting your genes tested if you discover a history in your family. If you’re aware of your risk you can take steps to protect yourself and be more vigilant about any changes in the way you feel.
- Obesity. Women who are overweight are more likely to develop ovarian cancer, so it’s important to start making lifestyle changes now to lower your risk and get healthier overall.
- Not exercising. Luckily recent studies have also found that physically active women are 20% less likely to get ovarian cancer, and have a 26% lower risk of ovarian cancer mortality if they do get it. Just another reason to stay fit – with the added benefit of feeling great!
- Estrogen hormone therapy. Often used to treat symptoms of menopause, estrogen hormone therapy has been linked to increased chances of both breast and ovarian cancer.
- Fertility treatment. Some fertility drugs have been connected with increased ovarian cancer risks. So if you are considering infertility treatments be sure to discuss the risk with your doctor.
We’re learning more about ovarian cancer everyday as scientists reach new breakthroughs and detection techniques. The best way to keep yourself healthy is to stay in tune with your body and pay close attention to any changes or discomfort that you feel. You know your body best – just trust your gut feeling and don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor.
Please note that advice offered by Intimina may not be relevant to your individual case. For specific concerns regarding your health, always consult your physician or other licensed medical practitioners.
Lane Baumeister is an internationally-based Canadian writer with several years’ experience creating educational and entertaining articles that discuss intimate health and sexual well-being. When not waxing profound about menstruation, she devotes herself to enjoying extremely good food and equally bad movies.