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11 Signs of Ovarian Cancer You Might Be Ignoring

Symptoms of ovarian cancer can be vague, but detecting ovarian cancer early could be key to survival.

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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 in New York City. “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 more of the things OB-GYNs wish you knew about ovarian cancer.

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Abdominal bloating

“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 in Baltimore. If your abdomen is growing while your face and arms are losing muscle and fat, it may not just be weight gain. Make sure you ignore these myths about ovarian cancer.

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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 your digestive issues could be a sign of cancer. “Our hope is that if patients and physicians are aware of the ovarian cancer symptoms, evaluations for ovarian cancer would come earlier as opposed to being the last thing looked into,” Dr. Holcomb says. These are other cancer symptoms women are likely to ignore.

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Loss of appetite

If you find yourself getting full faster and unable to eat as much as you used to, talk to your doctor, particularly if you’ve suddenly lost weight without trying, Dr. Holcomb says. These other diseases could also lead to unexplained weight loss.

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Nausea

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.”

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Urinating more often

More frequent stops to the bathroom might indicate more than a small bladder, Dr. 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.

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Menstrual irregularities

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 the other unusual menstrual cycle symptoms to watch for.

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Painful intercourse

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.

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Changes in weight

Although ovarian cancer can lead to bloating and fluid collection in the abdomen, it can also lead to weight loss or changing proportions of weight on the body. “Of course, water retention will make a person gain weight, especially in the abdomen, but other muscle mass and especially extremity mass may decrease with ovarian cancer,” explains Wendy C. Goodall McDonald, MD, an OB/GYN in Chicago. If you notice your weight distribution is changing, Dr. Goodall recommends checking in with your doctor for abdominal imaging like an ultrasound.

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Fatigue

Any type of cancer will cause extreme fatigue or weakness even when you’re getting the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep a night—a symptom that always warrants a check-up. “If more sleep, increasing your regular exercise to get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per day and eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables with plenty of water don’t improve your fatigue, a workup for cancer or autoimmune illness may be necessary,” adds Dr. McDonald. These everyday things might be draining your energy.

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Back pain

Pain in your back, especially your lower back, is not uncommon—and it may be a harmless symptom. However, ovarian cancer can infiltrate deep into the pelvis, affecting nerves that are branches of back-based nerves, explains Felice Gersh, MD, OB/GYN, founder and director of the Integrative Medical Group of Irvine in California and author of PCOS SOS. “Through the process of referred pain, the back feels much pain,” she says.

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Respiratory issues

“Ovarian cancers can produce inflammatory chemicals, called inflammatory cytokines,” explains Dr. Gresh. “These can inflame distant sites, resulting in essentially an asthmatic response in the lungs, known as bronchial constriction.” If you’re experiencing a persistent cough, it could be due to these other medical conditions.

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Trust your intuition

The best advice rests with knowing your body and appreciating subtle changes, notes Steve Vasilev, MD, gynecologic oncologist and medical director of Integrative Gynecologic Oncology at Providence Saint John’s Health Center and Professor at John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, California. “Everyone deserves a full evaluation to make certain that the diagnosis is something that is not life-threatening, like ovarian cancer,” he says. “Sometimes even a full evaluation will not find an ovarian cancer initially, so, the next best advice is to go back for re-evaluation if symptoms persist or get a second opinion.” If you’re concerned with staying healthy, you’ll want to avoid these 10 surprising things that up your cancer risk.

Sources
  • Kevin Holcomb, MD, director of gynecologic oncology at Weill Cornell Medicine.
  • Amanda Fader, MD, associate professor and director of Kelly Gynocologic Oncology Service at Johns Hopkins Medicine.
  • Ovarian Cancer National Alliance. Other Women's Cancers.
  • American Cancer Socitety. Survival Rates for Ovarian Cancer.
  • Wendy C. Goodall McDonald, MD, an OBGYN in Chicago, Illinois.
  • Felice Gersh, MD, OB/GYN, founder and director of the Integrative Medical Group of Irvine in California and author of PCOS SOS.
  • Steve Vasilev, MD, gynecologic oncologist and medical director of Integrative Gynecologic Oncology at Providence Saint John's Health Center and Professor at John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, California.
Medically reviewed by Tia Jackson-Bey, MD, on September 12, 2019

Jenn Sinrich
Jenn Sinrich is an experienced digital and social editor in New York City. She's written for several publications including SELF, Women's Health, Fitness, Parents, American Baby, Ladies' Home Journal, and more. She covers topics from health, fitness, and food to pregnancy and parenting. In addition to writing, Jenn volunteers with Ed2010, serving as the deputy director to Ed's Buddy System, a program that pairs recent graduates with young editors to give them a guide to the publishing industry and to navigating New York. When she's not busy writing, editing, or reading, she's enjoying and discovering the city she's always dreamed of living in with her fiancé, Dan, and two feline friends, Janis and Jimi.