Ovarian cancer is often spoken of as a silent cancer. Often, people do not realize they have it until it has spread. There are early signs of ovarian cancer, but they are often mistaken for other health issues. Knowing the early signs and when to call your healthcare professional improves your chances of early detection.
The early signs of ovarian cancer are similar to other issues but can last longer and be more pronounced.
Early detection is key to decreased mortality from ovarian cancer.
There are several different types of ovarian cancer.
It is important to know your risk of developing ovarian cancer.
See your healthcare professional yearly to screen for ovarian cancer.
What is ovarian cancer?
Your ovaries are part of your reproductive tract. They are the organs that make the egg that, if fertilized by a sperm, implants into the lining of your uterus and grows into a baby. During the years between your first period and menopause, your ovaries generally release one egg a month. This releasing of the egg is part of your menstrual cycle.
As with all cancers, ovarian cancer is an overgrowth of cells that have mutated to grow out of control. There are several, different types of ovarian cancers:
- Epithelial. These start in the outer lining of cells of the ovary.
- Ovarian germ cell. The germ cell is the beginning cell of the egg.
- Stromal tumors. The stroma is a type of connective tissue.
- Ovarian cysts. Cysts are fluid-filled sacs; only a small percentage become cancerous.
Risks for developing ovarian cancer
There are several risk factors associated with ovarian cancer. First, is that you have to have ovaries. If you have had your ovaries removed, or did not develop ovaries, you do not have a risk for developing ovarian cancer.
Other risks include:
- Age. The older you are the more at risk you are of developing ovarian cancer.
- Family history. If you have a close family member who had ovarian cancer, your risks increase.
- Genes. Carrying a genetic mutation like BRACA1 or BRACA2 increases your risk.
- No pregnancies. If you have never given birth or had difficulties becoming pregnant, you are at increased risk.
- Endometriosis. The condition where uterine tissue grows outside of your uterus can increase the risk of growing abnormal ovarian cells.
- History of other cancers. Having breast, colon, or uterus cancer increases your risk.
- Ethnicity. People of Eastern European or Ashkenazi Jewish descent are at increased risk.
- Fertility treatments. The hormones in fertility treatments increases the risk of hormone driven cancers.
- Being overweight. Fat tissue produces extra estrogen, this hormone is linked to an increase risk of developing ovarian cancer.
There are a few ways of decreasing your risks, but research has not shown by how much you can decrease it. To reduce your risk you can use birth control pills for more than five years, give birth, breastfeed, or have your ovaries removed. These may not be recommended for everyone. Make sure you speak with your doctor about your own personal risks and what to do about them.
If you have a family history of ovarian cancer, speak with your doctor about genetic and other screening testing that can be done. You should be screened regularly for ovarian cancer.
Early signs of ovarian cancer
Ovarian cancer is often only detected once it has spread. It is not something that is detected through a blood test in the early stages.
Early signs are often mild and attributed to other health reasons.
- Bloating of your stomach
- Stomach or back pain
- Pelvic pain
- Irregular vaginal bleeding, or vaginal bleeding after menopause
- Feeling full quickly, or not feeling like you need to eat
- Urinary tract infection symptoms
- Pain while having vaginal penetrating sex
These symptoms can be more persistent, occur more often, last longer, and be more severe than you are used to. Please speak with your doctor if any of these occur and are not at the normal level for you. If you are experiencing them more than twelve times in a month, definitely see your healthcare practitioner.
Screening and diagnostic tests for ovarian cancer
Screening for ovarian cancer involves seeing your healthcare professional on a regular basis, especially to have an internal exam of your reproductive organs. If you are at an increased risk, your doctor may order a transvaginal ultrasound to take pictures of the ovaries.
If you are experiencing symptoms of ovarian cancer, your healthcare practitioner will order several tests, as well as doing an in person evaluation. Diagnostic testing includes:
- Imaging (ultrasound, CT scans, MRI, PET scan)
- Blood test
- Biopsy of the tumor
Treatment options for ovarian cancer
Treatment options for ovarian cancer depend on the type of tumor and staging of the cancer. Surgery and the removal of the cancer, one or both ovaries, and the uterus is often the primary treatment mode. Other treatments include:
- Radiation therapy
- Targeted therapy
- Hormonal therapy
- New therapies through clinical trials
Your oncologist will know the best course of treatment for you, please make sure you discuss them in detail and have any questions you have answered. The earlier your cancer is found, the easier it is to treat.
According to the American Cancer Society, ovarian cancer is the 5th cause of cancer deaths in those who were born with ovaries. Thanks to earlier detection, there has been a noticeable decrease in mortality due to ovarian cancer. It is important you speak with your doctor whenever you have a concern with your health.
- American Cancer Society. What is ovarian cancer?
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What are the risks factors for ovarian cancer?
- American Cancer Society. Signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer.
- Siteman Cancer Center. Subtle signs of ovarian cancer women should look out for.
- Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Can we prevent ovarian cancer?