When it comes to ovarian cancer symptoms and the disease as a whole, the good news is that the rate at which women are diagnosed with it has been slowly falling over the past 20 years, reports the American Cancer Society. But there is still cause for concern: Ovarian cancer remains the most lethal of all the female reproductive system cancers, and it ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women.
“Fatality rate aside, a woman’s lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer is only about 1.5 percent, making it a relatively rare cancer,” says Susan C. Modesitt, MD, director of gynecologic oncology at UVA Cancer Center. “However, women should still be well informed about the disease.”
Here are three facts about ovarian cancer Dr. Modesitt wants every woman to know.
1) There’s No Screening Test
Compare that with other female reproductive system cancers. “Mammograms screen for breast cancer, and Pap tests screen for cervical cancer,” says Dr. Modesitt, who also serves as the co-director of the High Risk Breast & Ovarian Cancer Clinic at UVA Cancer Center. “For ovarian cancer, we have blood tests and ultrasound, but those are diagnostic tests for when we suspect a problem. They’re not intended for healthy, asymptomatic women.”
2) Ovarian Cancer Symptoms Are Vague
Ovarian cancer typically produces no symptoms in its early stages, when it’s most curable. These hidden warning signs can lead to delays in diagnosis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer may include:
- Bloating or swelling in your abdomen
- Becoming full too quickly when eating
- Discomfort in your pelvic area
- Changes in your bowel habits, such as constipation
- A frequent need to urinate
- Abnormal bleeding
Dr. Modesitt narrows these symptoms down slightly: “There is a classic, hallmark triad of key symptoms: bloating, abdominal or pelvic pain and difficulty eating or feeling full quickly. These are the most important ones.”
3) Trust Your Intuition If Something Doesn’t Feel Right
Dr. Modesitt emphasizes that any symptom that’s new or different warrants a physician visit. “These symptoms usually develop over many months, so they’re not necessarily noticeable on a daily basis,” she says. “If you’re having one of these symptoms regularly — say, more than ten or twelve times per month — you need to see your doctor for a thorough physical exam.”
The American Cancer Society advocates seeing a gynecologist, as opposed to a general practitioner or internist, if you suspect you might have ovarian cancer. That’s because internists may focus on testing for other common conditions like low thyroid levels or gallbladder disease. “None of the tests an internist is likely to order will diagnose ovarian cancer reliably,” says Dr. Modesitt. “That’s why we recommend seeing your gynecologist with these concerns.”
Ovarian cancer is most common among postmenopausal women and about half of the women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer are 63 or older, according to the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance. That’s a busy time of life for many women, and self-care may require a shift in priorities. “You take care of everyone else: aging parents, grandkids, you name it. It’s time to put yourself first and see your doctor immediately if you have any concerns,” Dr. Modesitt says. “I would absolutely rather have a patient come in and have it turn out to be nothing.”
While ovarian cancer doesn’t seem like a huge risk for some women, it’s critical that you stay on top of your health through routine annual exams with your gynecologist and by noting anything new, different or worrisome.
Mary was experiencing unusual symptoms so she made an appointment to see her gynecologist. She almost didn’t keep the appointment because the symptoms were vague, but she decided to go, and it’s a good thing she did. Mary was diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer and was successfully treated by Dr. Modesitt and her team.Learn More