Don't miss the signs of ovarian cancer

September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month

  • The initial signs of ovarian cancer may be easy to miss or misdiagnose.
  • Knowing the symptoms of ovarian cancer can help you recognize the disease early when it’s most treatable.
  • Share your story at #KnowOvarian for Ovarian Cancer Month.

[2 MIN READ]

If you’re like many women, you've experienced a bloated belly or a stomach ache that seems to linger longer than it should. It could be the aftereffects of Taco Tuesday. Or it could be the subtle signs of something more serious, like ovarian cancer.

Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer death for women, according to the American Cancer Society. Many of those deaths could have been prevented if cancer had been detected earlier when survival rates are highest. Unfortunately, most women don’t realize they are at risk until their cancer has progressed to a less-treatable stage or spread to other parts of their bodies.

Some cancers are detected through routine screenings such as a Pap smear for cervical cancer or a mammogram for breast cancer. However, there is no easy, reliable way to screen for ovarian cancer if you don't have symptoms.

Some cancers are detected through routine screenings such as a Pap smear for cervical cancer or a mammogram for breast cancer. However, there is no easy, reliable way to screen for ovarian cancer if you don't have symptoms. Know the signs and discuss any that concern you with your primary care doctor.

Signs of ovarian cancer may not be obvious

The signs of ovarian cancer are easily overlooked. They may be attributed to another, less serious, condition such as irritable bowel syndrome or regular weight gain. Pay attention to your body and learn what’s normal for you.

According to the American Cancer Society, common symptoms include:

  • Back pain
  • Bloating that causes your belly to swell or feel full
  • Constipation
  • Difficulty eating or feeling full too quickly
  • Frequent need to urinate
  • Pain during sex
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Vaginal discharge or unusual bleeding

Call your doctor if you notice symptoms are happening more frequently, occur in combination with other issues or if they are so severe they affect your daily life. It's essential to communicate your concerns when they happen. Don’t wait for your yearly wellness visit. If you experience symptoms at least 12 times in one month, your doctor may recommend that you get screened for ovarian cancer.

Risk factors of ovarian cancer

There is no medical version of a crystal ball that can accurately predict whether you’ll get ovarian cancer. But the following list compiled by the CDC indicates you may be at increased risk if you:

  • Are middle-aged or older
  • Have a family history of ovarian cancer
  • Have endometriosis
  • Have BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes
  • Have ever been diagnosed with uterine, breast or colorectal cancer
  • Have an Eastern European or Ashkenazi Jewish background
  • Have never given birth

Pay attention to ovarian cysts

Many women with ovarian cysts are not aware of them until they have an ultrasound—typically to diagnose another medical issue. If you do have cysts, it does not always mean there is cause for concern.

If you have an identified cyst or PCOS that causes you to have multiple lingering cysts, your doctor may want to monitor them for growth and periodic testing to rule out cancer.

A vast majority of ovarian cysts will disappear without intervention. However, some could grow and become cancerous over time. If you have an identified cyst or polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) that causes you to have multiple lingering cysts, your doctor may want to monitor them for growth and periodic testing to rule out cancer.

Ovarian cancer linked to BRCA (BReast CAncer) gene mutations

Specific mutations in BRCA genes will make your cells divide more quickly and can potentially lead to cancer. Approximately one in 500 women in the United States has a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, according to the CDC.

If either of your parents has this type of mutation, then you will have a 50 percent risk of having the same BRCA gene mutation. Although not all women who have this genetic mutation will end up being diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer, it does create increased risk.

If you have a BRCA gene mutation, there are preventive measures you can take to greatly reduce the risk of ovarian cancer. However, these measures are drastic and should be carefully considered.  Your doctor may recommend a risk-reducing procedure called salpingo-oophorectomy, which removes the ovaries and fallopian tubes via surgery, but results in permanent sterilization.

Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month

September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. The annual event reminds women to pay attention to their symptoms and risk factors and take proactive steps to protect their health. Share your story and get support from others at #KnowOvarian.

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Find a doctor

Swedish Cancer Institute - Gynecologic Oncology and Pelvic Surgery specializes in gynecologic cancers and complex gynecology. The practice features six gynecologic oncologists who have been serving the Pacific Northwest for more than 30 years and are leaders in ovarian cancer research. In addition, they have expertise in minimally-invasive surgery and  have successfully completed more than 7,000 robotic surgeries.

Swedish Gynecologic Oncology and Pelvic Surgery is located at 1101 Madison Street, Suite 1500 in the First Hill Madison Tower, Seattle, WA. Satellite clincis are conveniently located in the Puget Sound area in Issaquah, Bellevue, Renton, Edmonds and Everett.

For more information, or to schedule an appointment, call: 206-991-2000.

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult with a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Express Care Virtual connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms and provide instruction and follow-up. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Find out what we’re doing to keep you safe when you visit.

Related resources

Cancer Care in the Era of COVID-19 Pandemic

Exercise is Medicine for Cancer Survivors. How can You Stay Active during a Pandemic?

Fear and cancer: What’s next after treatment ends?

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

Our philosophy for well being is looking at the holistic human experience. As such, the Swedish Wellness & Lifestyle Team is committed to shining a light on health-related topics that help you live your healthiest life. From nutrition to mindfulness to annual screenings, our team offers clinically-backed advice and tips to help you and your loved ones live life to the fullest.

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