We have long thought of ovarian cancer as a silent killer with few symptoms and early symptoms. But ovarian cancer may not be as mysterious as we think. In fact, there are early symptoms of the disease and it is important to recognize them.
Why is it so important? Unfortunately, more than 70 percent of women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed when the cancer is more advanced and the prognosis is poor.
The five-year survival rate (proportion of women who survive five or more years after diagnosis) for early-stage ovarian cancer is about 80-90%.
The five-year survival rate for advanced ovarian cancer ranges from 28-40%.
“Women often ignore the early symptoms of ovarian cancer or think their symptoms are due to aging, weight gain, or other serious problems,” says Amina Ahmed, MD, a gynecologic oncologist at RUSH. “That’s what makes it so difficult to catch ovarian cancer early, when it’s most treatable.”
It is also important to take the symptoms of ovarian cancer seriously, because currently there is no way to detect ovarian cancer in women who do not have symptoms, a family history, or a BRCA genetic mutation (which increases the risk of developing ovarian cancer). .
Don’t ignore these common symptoms of ovarian cancer
According to Ahmed, the symptoms of ovarian cancer can be vague, but the key is to pay attention to how long the symptoms last. “The story of many women with ovarian cancer is that they had symptoms for months before they were diagnosed,” she said.
Talk to your doctor if your symptoms don’t improve or go away within one to three weeks, or if prescription medications aren’t helping. By recognizing these early signs, women can catch and treat the disease before it progresses.
Almost all women experience the discomfort of bloating and flatulence. Bloating, especially around your menstrual cycle, is normal, but regular bloating that lasts every day for three weeks is not.
Frequent bloating and feeling full is one of the most common early symptoms of ovarian cancer. Bloating accompanied by an enlarged abdomen (a visible tumor in the stomach) can be a red flag that there is a problem.
Gut problems can be linked to everything from stress and anxiety to irritable bowel syndrome and ovarian cancer. A common GI symptom when it comes to ovarian cancer is constipation.
“Be aware of any changes in bowel habits,” says Ahmed. “Especially new constipation that doesn’t go away with any intervention can be a symptom.”
- Prolonged pain
Persistent abdominal and pelvic pressure and/or lower back pain lasting one to three weeks may indicate a problem. This vague symptom of ovarian cancer can accompany a number of conditions, but it’s important to note that if the pain is new to you, it doesn’t come and go and isn’t caused by other factors.
If your pain improves when your stress is relieved, your symptoms are likely stress-related. If you make small changes to your diet and your pain improves, it could be a GI problem.
“Unfortunately, it’s really hard to distinguish between symptoms of ovarian cancer and gastrointestinal and stress-related issues,” Ahmed says. “That’s why so many women see several specialists before they get a final diagnosis.”
If you have these symptoms, they don’t go away, and you try self-soothing, talk to your doctor about the following tests.
Examination of the pelvic organs
A GI evaluation that includes a physical exam and possibly GI testing (eg, endoscopy, colonoscopy).
CT scan, MRI or ultrasound