14 Things Ob-Gyns Desperately Wish You Knew About Ovarian Cancer

Updated: Oct. 10, 2022

The early symptoms of ovarian cancer are easily missed, so getting educated is one of the best things you can do to protect yourself.

Everything you need to know about ovarian cancer

Although the rate of ovarian cancer diagnoses has slowly decreased over the past 20 years, about 21,000 people are still diagnosed with this type of cancer every year. Since there are plenty of myths about ovarian cancer it’s important to know the following things that Ob-Gyns desperately wish you knew.

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Ovarian cancer is often mistaken for stomach problems

“Early symptoms of ovarian cancer tend to be subtle. Bloating, constipation, stomach pain, irregular bleeding, pelvic pressure, and even a sensation of ‘feeling full’ after eating little are all early signs but women often ignore these, writing them off as gastrointestinal problems, or try to self-treat rather than seeking medical attention. —Nicole Williams, MD, of The Gynecology Institute of Chicago. Here are other symptoms of ovarian cancer you might be ignoring.

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Birth control pills and babies can reduce your risk

“Some of the biggest risk factors for ovarian cancer are associated with how often you ovulate. The more you ovulate, the more at risk you are for ovarian cancer.  So women who have never had a child, never used the birth control pills, started menstruating early, and/or experienced menopause after the age of 55 are at a higher risk and should have more frequent check-ups.” —Sherry Ross, MD, women’s health expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA. (These are other cancer symptoms women always ignore.)

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There is no good test for detecting ovarian cancer

“When it comes to ovarian cancer, unfortunately there’s no reliable universal screening method (like the Pap test is for cervical cancer) and the symptoms can be vague and confused with many other illnesses. The best approach is to have a thorough yearly exam, which may include a pelvic ultrasound to better evaluate the ovaries for any abnormalities. Furthermore, women with a family history of either breast or ovarian cancer should discuss genetic testing to better understand their chances of developing these cancers. If a woman has a genetic predisposition for these cancers, there are prophylactic procedures that can greatly reduce the chances of getting these cancers and increased surveillance can be instituted. As with all cancers, early detection is always best.” —Russell BartelsMD, medical director at the Scottsdale Center for Women’s Health

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Ovarian cancer is rare but deadly

“The American Cancer Society estimates that in the United States in 2016 about 22,280 women will get a new diagnosis of ovarian cancer. More than half of these—about 14,240 of our mothers, sisters, aunts, daughters, neighbors, co-workers and friends—will die of the disease. Ovarian cancer, though a relatively rare cancer, ranks fifth in cancer deaths of women.” —Crystal Moore, MD, PhD, FCAP, an anatomic and clinical pathologist in Virginia.

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You can help your family

“Because ovarian cancer can be hereditary all women with ovarian cancer should have genetic testing.  If you have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, encourage all your first-degree relatives (like sisters or daughters) to have their genetic testing done. Through genetic testing we can prevent up to 20 percent of all ovarian cancer cases today by identifying those who are at a high risk.” —Douglas A. Levine, MD, director of gynecologic oncology at the Laura and Isaac Perlmutter Cancer Center at NYU Langone Medical Center

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It’s not an automatic death sentence

“Many people think that we are not making progress in our fight against ovarian cancer but we are. Over the past 30 years treatments have gotten much more effective and are better tolerated. Nowadays women are living longer and better lives. We have a lot of work still to do, but we are making headway against this very aggressive disease. ” —Douglas A. Levine, MD, director of gynecologic oncology at the Laura and Isaac Perlmutter Cancer Center at NYU Langone Medical Center. Here are the reassuring things scientists wish you knew about cancer.

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It’s linked to colon cancer

“Recent research has shown that a family history of colon cancer could put you at risk for an increased risk of both ovarian and uterine cancer.  It’s important to seek genetic counseling and talk to your doctor if you have a family history of these cancers.” —Nicole Williams, MD. Don’t miss the 6 silent colon cancer symptoms.

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Don’t underestimate the power of exercise and a healthy diet

“Overall worrying about ovarian cancer should be low on your list of worries. It is a scary disease but focusing on staying healthy through proper diet and exercise will not only lower your risk of getting ovarian cancer but it can help lower the risk of getting all cancers and protect you from heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in women in the United States.” —Sarah Yamaguchi, MD, Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, California. This is what cancer doctors do to avoid getting cancer.

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Ovarian cancer is often not caught until it’s at stage 3

“Because of where the ovaries are located in the abdomen and the fact there are no effective screening tests to diagnose ovarian cancer at an earlier stage, it is often not caught until a late stage in the disease. In fact, ovarian cancer is usually not symptomatic until the ovarian mass is large or until other organs are affected. It is important for women to be aware of symptoms of ovarian cancer, including abdominal fullness or bloating, early satiety (feeling full quickly when eating), and urinary complaints. While none of these are ovarian-specific, they are worrisome and warrant an evaluation.” —Rebecca Phaeton, MD, assistant professor of gynecologic oncology at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center

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This is why your yearly gynecology exam is so important

“Symptoms of early-stage ovarian cancer are commonly overlooked. In fact, a survey by Genentech and the Foundation for Women’s Cancers found 76 percent of women are not confident they could even identify symptoms of ovarian cancer. It is critical for women to have an annual visit to the doctor and discuss any and all symptoms they may be experiencing, particularly if those symptoms are persistent or a change from the norm.” —Sharyn N. Lewin, MD, medical director, department of gynecologic oncology, Holy Name Medical Center. Make sure you know the cancer symptoms women are likely to ignore.

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Sometimes a burp isn’t just a burp

“The high death rate of ovarian cancer is due, at least in part, to the vague, nonspecific symptoms that are experienced in the early stages. Bloating, pelvic, or abdominal pain and urinary symptoms are often the chief complaints. My sister, who passed away from the illness, primarily complained of painful gas. She began to try to burp or pass gas no matter where we were as it gave her such relief that social norms became an afterthought. Yet cancer would be very low on most physicians’ list of possibilities for a woman complaining of belching and flatulence. This is why if you feel something is wrong, it’s important to be insistent and persistent in advocating for your health.” —Crystal Moore, MD, PhD, FCAP

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You need to see a specialist

“If you are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, ask to be referred to a specialist. Studies show that seeing an ovarian cancer specialist (such as a gynecologic oncologist) leads to significantly better survival and outcomes.  In a recent publication this year with nearly 8,000 women, less than half received optimal surgery and chemotherapy.  There may be many reasons for this, but I think a big one is the lack of awareness that experts exist and seeing one early can make a big, big difference.” —Robert Wenham, MD, MS, FACOG, FACS, interim chair and director of research in gynecologic oncology at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida. These are the cancer warning signs your doctor should never ignore.

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Consider this one more reason to maintain a healthy weight

“Heredity is not destiny. Only about 10 percent of ovarian cases are due to genetic mutations, which means 90 percent of ovarian cancer cases are preventable.  And even in that 10 percent of cases that are “hereditary” the risk can be significantly reduced by lifestyle choices which are 100 percent under your control. Because obesity is a major risk factor, losing weight can help protect you.” —Steve Vasilev, MD


You have options besides surgery

“Surgery is the mainstay of initial treatment but all newly diagnosed patients with ovarian cancer should see a gynecologic oncologist to determine what treatment plan is best for them. For some, biological or medical treatments might be used prior or in addition to having surgery.” —Douglas A. Levine, MD. Next, check out these common myths about ovarian cancer everyone should ignore.