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Signs and Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer
Ovarian cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the ovaries – and in most cases, it isn’t diagnosed until it has progressed to an advanced stage. This is because early-stage symptoms either aren’t apparent or they are mimicking symptoms of common stomach and digestive illnesses. Certain risk factors, including being overweight and a history of ovarian cancer in the family, may increase your chances of being diagnosed. Ovarian cancer research clinical trials are underway, but it’s still good for patients to be educated about detecting ovarian cancer early.
When signs and symptoms are present, the most common ones include:
- Bloating – Bloating can be a common symptom of PMS or eating a lot of salt. However, if you have a sudden increase in the size of your abdomen it could also signal a problem with your ovarian health. You may or may not have pain along with bloating.
- Pain or discomfort in the abdominal (belly) or pelvic area – Pain or a feeling of pressure in the abdomen or pelvis that can’t be explained by cramps or constipation.
- Changes in appetite or feelings of fullness – Some women with ovarian cancer will notice they suddenly have trouble eating or are full very quickly. If you can’t explain these changes in your appetite due to stress or other known stomach problems, you should schedule an appointment with your physician.
- Urgency or frequency to urinate – Because your bladder and ovaries are close together, your urinary tract can be affected by the health of your ovaries.
- Changes in Menstruation Cycle -A change to your period cycle, such as heavier or irregular bleeding, could be related to ovarian health. If you are premenopausal and suddenly have more painful periods or an irregular cycle, you should schedule a physical with your doctor. This is especially true if you are unable to manage a regular and pain-free cycle even while on oral birth control. Similarly, if you are postmenopausal and have unexpected bleeding you should go to a gynecologist for an exam.
Symptoms tend to be persistent and an obvious change from normal if they are caused by ovarian cancer rather than another condition. If you notice any of these signs for a prolonged period of time or they can’t be explained, visit your doctor as soon as possible.
Some other ovarian cancer symptoms can include:
- Back pain
- Upset stomach
- Pain during sex
- Swelling in the abdomen (belly) with weight loss
Early detection is key for overcoming ovarian cancer. If you experience these symptoms more than 12 times a month, seek medical attention so your doctor can diagnose the problem and treat it if necessary.
Risk Factors and Prevention of Ovarian Cancer
A cancer risk factor is anything that increases your chance of developing a disease like ovarian cancer. The presence of risk factors, however, does not guarantee that you’ll develop cancer – ovarian or any other type – during your lifetime. For instance, some women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer have no known risk factors, while others who do have high risk factors won’t get ovarian cancer at all. With that said, it is important to be aware of the factors that could increase your risk of ovarian cancer and what you can do to help lower your risks.
Ovarian Cancer Risk Factors
There are a variety of factors that can increase your risk of ovarian cancer. While most of these risk factors can’t be controlled there are certain factors, such as personal lifestyle choices, that can be changed.
Common risk factors for ovarian cancer can include:
- Age – An ovarian cancer diagnosis is very rare in women under the age of 40. Most ovarian cancers develop after menopause.
- Obesity – Studies show that obese women have a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer.
- Family history – About 5 to 10% of ovarian cancers are a part of family cancer syndromes. Women who have a first-degree relative (such as a grandmother, mother, daughter, or sister) with ovarian cancer are at an increased risk because of inherited genetic mutations. Abnormalities in certain genes, specifically BRCA1 or BRCA2, or one associated with Lynch syndrome, can increase the risk of ovarian cancer.
- Hormone replacement therapy – Recent studies suggest that women who use estrogens after menopause are at an increased risk for ovarian cancer.
- Birth control – Using oral contraceptives or birth control pills for a minimum of 3 to 6 months can lower the risk of ovarian cancer. The risk continues to lower the longer the pills are used. With that said, the use of oral contraceptives can increase your risk for some other health issues, including cervical and breast cancer.
- Reproductive history – Women who had full-term pregnancies, before the age of 26, are at a lower risk than women who had their first full-term pregnancy after age 35. Women who have never carried a pregnancy to term are also at a higher risk. Each full-term pregnancy lowers your risk. It is suggested that breastfeeding may also lower the risk as well.
- Smoking – Smoking doesn’t increase the risk for all types of ovarian cancer, but it has been linked to an increased risk for the mucinous type that is present in ovarian cancer.
Reducing Your Risks of Developing Ovarian Cancer
While there is no guarantee that any woman won’t get ovarian cancer, there are steps that can be taken to help reduce any risk factors that can be avoided.
Different prevention methods may include:
- Eating healthier and exercising more
- Avoiding things known to cause cancer, such as smoking and talcum powder
- Getting pregnant and breastfeeding after giving birth
- Taking oral contraceptives
- Undergoing genetic testing if any of your first-degree relatives (grandmother, mother, daughter; sister) have been diagnosed with ovarian or breast cancer
- Having gynecological surgery such as tubal ligation or hysterectomy
Keep in mind that genetic testing and preventive gynecological surgery (called prophylactic BSO) are only recommended for patients who have a strong family history of ovarian or breast cancer. The decision to undergo either comes down to a personal choice only you can make. Talking with your doctor and meeting with a genetic counselor can help answer any questions you have and determine if you would be a good candidate for genetic testing or surgery.