Ovarian Cancer: Know the Symptoms and Your Risks

This article was medically fact-checked by Women’s health expert and Gynaecologist Dr. Alyssa Dweck.

As busy women, we often ignore discomfort, especially in the abdomen or pelvis. We may dismiss symptoms as menstrual in nature or just an upset tummy, but when it comes to ovarian cancer those little twinges are sometimes our only warnings.

As per the American Cancer Society (ACS) most recent statistics, the lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer is 1in 78 for women.  The risk of dying from ovarian cancer is 1 in 108.    Since symptoms can be so vague, diagnosis is often made at later stages.

Ovarian cancer ranks 5th in cancer deaths among women and accounts for more deaths than any other female reproductive cancers. For this reason, it is super important to listen to your body and get checked out if you feel off.

The good news is that the ACS notes the rate of diagnosis has fallen in the last 20 years.   If ovarian cancer is found early, it can be curable. 

Cancer And Your Ovaries

The ovaries are two oval-shaped organs where eggs are stored and released during ovulation.  They are connected to the fallopian tubes and uterus and size varies from approximately 3cm during reproductive years to less than 2cm in menopause.

Ovarian cancer occurs when abnormal cells grow out of control. 

Some theorize that ovarian cancer originates in the fallopian tubes; others suggest the constant ovulation (release of an egg) throughout the reproductive years is to blame. 

Symptoms Of Ovarian Cancer

Early ovarian cancer often shows no symptoms and even late-stage symptoms can be mistaken for other common conditions.

Signs of ovarian cancer are usually persistent; they don’t go away with your period or behavior or lifestyle changes like modifying your diet, exercise, rest, or over-the-counter laxatives. Some common symptoms include:

  • Bloating and increased abdominal girth
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain or pressure that doesn’t resolve after menstruation
  • decreased appetite or feeling full quickly
  • urinary symptoms such as urgency or frequency
  • Menstrual changes or abnormal bleeding
  • change in bowel habits or alternating diarrhea and constipation
  • pain during sex

If you experience one or more of these symptoms persistently, you should make an appointment with your health care provider.

Risk Factors

Recognizing the signs of ovarian cancer can be difficult, but being aware of the risk factors can be your first line of defense. Risk factors for ovarian cancer include:

    • Age  The risk of ovarian cancer increases with age.  Ovarian cancer is most common in women 50-65 but can be diagnosed in younger women as well.
    • Age of first menstrual period (early menarche) the earlier the age of menses onset, the higher the risk
    • Never having been pregnant Those women who never carry a pregnancy to term have a higher risk.
    • Contraceptive choices Women who use oral contraceptives have lower risk of ovarian cancer  – with benefits seen after only 3-6 months of use. The birth control pill inhibits ovulation which may be a protective mechanism
    • Family history & genetics. A  family history of ovarian, breast or uterine cancers, particularly in first degree relatives (parents, siblings)  or through many generations may increase risk.  Genetic testing for the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genes, for example, might be indicated to quantify risk and help formulate a screening and treatment protocols. 
    • Obesity. Women who are obese specifically those with BMI > 30 may be at higher risk to develop ovarian cancer, in part because palpating ovaries on exam is limited.  
    • Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) Women who take estrogen replacement with or without progesterone have an increased risk of ovarian cancer when compared to those women who have not used HRT

You know your body best – just trust your gut feeling and don’t be afraid to talk to your health care provider.

 

Facts checked by:

Dr. Alyssa Dweck

Dr. Alyssa Dweck

Alyssa Dweck MS, MD, FACOG is a practicing gynecologist in Westchester County, New York. She provides care to women of all ages; she has delivered thousands of babies. She is proficient in minimally invasive surgery and has special interest and expertise in female sexual health and medical sex therapy. She is top doctor in New York Magazine and Westchester Magazine. Dr. Dweck has co-authored three books including the most recent release The Complete A to Z For Your V.

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