Most women are diagnosed with breast cancer as the result of a suspicious lump found in the breast; breast cancer’s number-one symptom is clear and straightforward. Not so with ovarian cancer, whose symptoms tend to be vague, mirroring those of other common health issues.
What potential ovarian cancer symptoms should you be aware of? And if you experience them, at what point should you be concerned enough to see a doctor?
Symptoms of ovarian cancer
Both the American Cancer Society (ACS) and National Cancer Institute list similar symptoms that may signal ovarian cancer. Unfortunately, by the time these symptoms become apparent, the cancer is often advanced. That’s why ovarian cancer is so much deadlier than breast cancer; it’s much, much harder to catch early on, when it’s more easily treatable.
Here are ovarian cancer’s chief symptoms:
- Bloating, gas, constipation.
- Pain/pressure in the abdomen.
- Loss of appetite; feeling full quickly.
- Urinary “urgency” (having to go more often)
- Pressure and/or a lump in the pelvic area.
- Vaginal discharge; heavy or irregular vaginal bleeding, especially after menopause.
It’s easy to see why ovarian cancer is so hard to detect; it shares symptoms with many other conditions, most of them not serious. Who among us hasn’t experienced gas, constipation, or a stomach ache? Vaginal discharge is common; and irregular or heavy bleeding is a typical sign of menopause. Many of us experience urinary issues as we age; and our appetites tend to change with age, as well.
So when do your write off any of these symptoms as something you ate, or the normal aging process, and when should you see a doctor?
A change from normal
First, are these symptoms unusual? If you’ve always tended toward constipation, and nothing in this respect has changed, it’s doubtful your sluggish bowels are signaling ovarian cancer.
Do you see an uptick in vaginal discharge around your period? Normal.
But if you suddenly find yourself having to use the bathroom much more than normal or your usual good appetite disappears and doesn’t come back, it’s time to find out what’s up.
Frequency is another determinant for whether a symptom should be taken seriously. The ACS recommends seeing a doctor if you experience any particular symptom 12 or more times per month (at least every two-three days).
In addition, if your risk for ovarian cancer is above average, factor that into any potential symptoms you may be experiencing. As is the case with breast cancer, advanced age, obesity, and the use of postmenopausal hormone therapy can raise your risk for ovarian cancer. A history of endometriosis is also an identified risk factor.
A mother, sister, or daughter with ovarian cancer raises your own risk, as does a family history of breast and ovarian cancer, which can signal inherited genetic mutations responsible for the disease. In addition, women who’ve never taken birth control and women who haven’t carried a pregnancy to term before age 35 are at increased risk for ovarian cancer.
Are you worried about ovarian cancer? Know its symptoms, and if you experience any, keep a diary to track their frequency.
Most important, don’t be afraid to contact your doctor if you see a pattern of new health issues centering around your abdomen and pelvic area. If these symptoms are indeed the result of ovarian cancer, it’s best to discover that sooner rather than later.
Ovarian Epithelial, Fallopian Tube, and Primary Peritoneal Cancer Treatment. (2017, May 1). Retrieved August 05, 2017, from https://www.cancer.gov/types/ovarian/patient/ovarian-epithelial-treatment-pdq.
Signs and Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer. (2016, February 4). Retrieved August 05, 2017, from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/ovarian-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/signs-and-symptoms.html.
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PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.