Ovarian Cancer: What Women Need to Know

Ovarian cancer has often been called a silent killer because its symptoms may not appear until the cancer is already advanced. Today, however, that’s starting to change.

We’re realizing many women do have early symptoms, although they may be mistaken for other problems. Knowing the symptoms can save your life. Earlier diagnosis means more hope for women with ovarian cancer. The odds of beating ovarian cancer are improving. About one-third of women live 10 years or more after diagnosis.

What Is Ovarian Cancer and Who Gets It?

Ovarian cancer is caused by cancer cells that grow in the ovaries – female reproductive organs that contain eggs. Ovarian cancer may be hard to notice because the ovaries are small and located deep inside the body.

About three percent of all cancer found in women is ovarian cancer. It’s most common in white women, followed by Hispanic, black, Asian and Pacific islanders, and then American Indians. It’s the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths in women, most often in women over age 62.

Although ovarian cancer runs in families, most women who develop it don’t have the genes that increase their risk. Cells can mutate into cancer by accident or due to other risk factors.

Risk Factors for Ovarian Cancer

Factors that increase risk include:

  • Being over age 55 (the biggest risk)
  • Family or personal history of breast, ovarian, colorectal, or uterine cancer
  • Having endometriosis, never having been pregnant, using fertility drugs, or 10 or more years of estrogen therapy for menopause

Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer

These symptoms are “nonspecific.” That means they could signal many things and often are signs of other problems. But women with ovarian cancer have these symptoms more than other women:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Abdominal bloating or swelling
  • Urinary frequency or urgency
  • Mass or lump in the abdomen
  • Abnormal bleeding (including bleeding after menopause)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Losing weight without trying or being unusually tired
  • Changes in bowel habits: cramping, pain, bloating, gas, constipation, and diarrhea

Preventing Ovarian Cancer

We don’t know how to prevent ovarian cancer, but the risk appears lower in women who:

  • Used oral contraceptives for at least five years
  • Got pregnant before age 25 and had several pregnancies
  • Breastfed
  • Had a tubal ligation to prevent pregnancy

Women who have had their uterus, ovaries, and fallopian tubes removed are also at low risk for ovarian cancer.

When to See The Doctor

Listen to your body. Anytime you feel something’s just not right, talk to your doctor. If you’re over age 50 or have a family history, pay special attention.

Make an appointment to see your doctor if you have these symptoms for more than two weeks:

  • Feeling bloated
  • Getting full fast or have no appetite
  • Having pain or pressure in your abdomen or pelvis
  • Urinating a lot or suddenly
  • Bleeding and you don’t know why (it’s not your period)
  • Cramping, pain, bloating, gas, constipation, or diarrhea

Make an appointment right away if you notice a mass (hard lump) or feel fluid in your abdomen.

Changes in bowel habits are often symptoms of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). But IBS usually starts before age 40. If you’re over 50 and experiencing these symptoms, it might mean something is going on with your ovaries.

Play it safe by knowing the symptoms of ovarian cancer. It may save your life.

Additional resources about ovarian cancer:

Meet the Author

Elizabeth L. Dickson, MD is a Gynecologic Oncologist at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Aurora West Allis Medical Center in West Allis, Wisconsin.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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