Why are ovarian cancer symptoms so silent?
The five-year relative survival rate for all types of ovarian cancer is 45 percent—but that number rises to 92 percent if the cancer is caught in stage IA or IB, before it spreads beyond the ovary, according to the American Cancer Society. Sadly, because ovarian cancer symptoms can be hard to recognize, about 70 percent of cases aren’t caught until they've advanced to stage III or IV, when chances of survival are much lower, says Kevin Holcomb, MD, director of gynecologic oncology at Weill Cornell Medicine. “Ovarian cancer isn’t really a silent disease,” Dr. Holcomb says. “A significant number of women with ovarian cancer have symptoms in the months and weeks leading up to diagnosis. Unfortunately, many are vague and nonspecific. … Ovarian cancer whispers, so you have to listen closely.” Unlike breast cancer, no tests have been developed to screen regularly for ovarian cancer accurately, which makes the cancer hard to detect unless you report symptoms early yourself. If you’ve been feeling more than one symptom for a week or more, ask your doctor about getting a pelvic examination, transvaginal sonogram, or a CA 125 blood test, which can help detect ovarian cancer. These are the things OB-GYNs wish you knew about ovarian cancer.
“With ovarian cancer, not only can tumors grow quite large, but they can result in fluid growing around them, which can cause pretty dramatic abdominal extension,” says Amanda Fader, MD, associate professor and director of Kelly Gynocologic Oncology Service at Johns Hopkins Medicine. If your abdomen is growing while your face and arms are losing muscle and fat, it probably isn’t just weight gain. Make sure you ignore these myths about ovarian cancer.
Changes in bowel habits
Women diagnosed with ovarian cancer may suddenly develop severe constipation that alternates with diarrhea. Your doctor might suggest tests for gastrointestinal problems like irritable bowel syndrome, but ask if it could be a sign of cancer. “Our hope is that if patients and physicians are aware of the symptoms, evaluations for ovarian cancer would come earlier as opposed to being the last think looked into,” Dr. Holcomb says. These are other cancer symptoms women are likely to ignore.
Loss of appetite
istock/Terry J Alcorn
If you find yourself getting full faster and unable to eat as much as you used to, you might be showing signs of ovarian cancer. Talk to your doctor if you've suddenly lost weight without planning to, Dr. Holcomb says.
Content continues below ad
Vomiting and nausea are symptoms common to many diseases, so your physician might not immediately suspect ovarian cancer. “Symptoms of ovarian cancer are not an isolated symptom, but a constellation of them,” Dr. Holcomb says. “In combination with nausea and bloating, there are also other changes.”
Urinating more often
More frequent stops to the bathroom might indicate more than a small bladder, Fader says. If the change has been sudden and is in combination with other symptoms, talk to your physician or gynecologist right away. Here are more secrets your bladder wishes it could tell you.
A number of causes might lead to a sudden change in your menstrual cycle or bleeding between periods, according to the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance. While an irregular period alone might not be cause for concern, a combination of other symptoms along with it could indicate a larger problem. These are other unusual menstrual cycle symptoms to watch for.
If sex suddenly becomes painful and continues to be for more than two weeks, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor, advises the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition. These are 11 other reasons sex might be painful.
Content continues below ad