Ovarian cancer primarily affects women 50 years of age and older. It can occur in several parts of the ovaries, which are located on either side of the uterus. It may spread to the lining of the abdomen, bowel and bladder as well as to the lymph nodes, lungs and liver.
Although ovarian cancer accounts for only about 3 percent of cancers affecting women, it causes more deaths than other cancers affecting the female reproductive system, according to American Cancer Society (ACS).
The ACS estimates that about 21,290 women in the United States will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer by 2015.
Experts do not know the exact cause of ovarian cancer, but there are certain factors that can put you at higher risk.
Such factors include being 50 or older, family history, never giving birth, starting menstruation at an early age, going through menopause after age 50, certain medications, smoking, obesity and history of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). It is more common in white women than African-Americans.
When the tumor starts developing in an ovary, symptoms may be vague or not apparent, but they become more noticeable during later stages.
Moreover, the symptoms are very nonspecific and can indicate a number of different conditions. This is why it has been dubbed as ‘The Silent Killer’.
Often, women discover ovarian cancer at later stages due to unavailability of any reliable screening method. Doctors use pelvic exams, ultrasound scans and blood tests for cancer-related markers to detect the disease.
It is important for women to know their body and take care of it properly. If any changes occur in the body, it is highly recommended to consult a doctor.
Here are the early signs of ovarian cancer.
1. Pelvic or Abdominal Pain
The growth of a tumor in an ovary causes pelvic or abdominal pain. The tumor exerts pressure on and around the surrounding areas, leading to intense pain. In cases of ovarian cancer, the pain persists for weeks.
If you are 50 years of age or older and experience pain in the lower abdomen and pelvic area, consult a doctor for a pelvic exam.
Younger women should also see a doctor when experiencing pelvic pain outside of a monthly menstrual cycle. It may be a sign of a benign ovarian cyst. Ovarian cancer is rare during a woman’s childbearing years.
2. Uncomfortable or Painful Intercourse
Painful intercourse, medically known as dyspareunia, is another early indication of ovarian cancer. The presence of a tumor in or around the area surrounding an ovary can make intercourse extremely painful. There may even be mild vaginal bleeding after the intercourse.
Usually, this kind of discomfort is new for a woman.
Women who are postmenopausal and experience painful intercourse must get checked by a doctor. Apart from ovarian cancer, it may indicate cervical cancer or an infection or sexually transmitted disease (STD).
3. Abdominal Bloating or Swelling
General discomfort in the lower abdomen may also indicate that something is wrong with your ovaries. Symptoms like bloating, expansion of your belly, gas, indigestion, heartburn and nausea are common.
In a 2008 study published in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, most of the women suffering from ovarian cancer complained about persistent abdominal distension and fluctuating distension or discomfort, which they frequently called bloating.
If you are 50 years of age or older, your clothes suddenly start feeling tighter around your waist and hips and it lasts for more than a couple of weeks, you need to see a doctor.
4. Frequent or Urgent Need to Urinate
Sudden changes in urinary habits can also be a symptom of ovarian cancer. There may be changes in the frequency of urination, loss of bladder control (incontinence) or spotting blood with urine.
Urinary changes most likely originate due to the pressure from the tumor or from fluid in the abdomen prompted by the presence of the tumor.
A 2004 study by Olmsted Medical Center and Mayo Clinic analyzed the symptoms of 107 ovarian cancer patients. Abdominal pain and urinary urgency were the most common symptoms in women who had Stage I and II ovarian cancer.
For many women, these changes may also be a sign of weak pelvic floor muscles or a urinary tract infection. No matter what the reason, it is always best to consult a doctor.
5. Difficulty Eating or Getting Full Quickly
If you are a good eater and suddenly notice a loss of appetite or you are getting full after eating just a few bites of food, this is not a good sign.
It can indicate a bigger health issue, including ovarian cancer. Furthermore, losing your characteristic appetite will result in weight loss and constant fatigue.
The growing tumor in an ovary even impacts the digestion process as there is not much room for food. Moreover, any kind of cancer impacts metabolism, which prevents proper breakdown of food into energy that fuels the body.
Do not celebrate unexplained weight loss or loss of appetite. In fact, it is very important to consult a doctor.
6. Vaginal Abnormalities
Another early warning sign noted by ovarian cancer patients is spotting or postmenopausal vaginal bleeding. Due to the spread of cancer to nearby tissues, new and abnormal capillaries are formed that break easily and cause bleeding.
Along with spotting and vaginal bleeding, there may be other signs of vaginal abnormalities, such as sores or blisters in the vaginal area, changes in skin color or thick vaginal discharge that smells bad.
If you have already gone through menopause, consult a doctor upon experiencing any bleeding or spotting.
7. Lower Back Pain
Women suffering from this cancer often experience pain in their back that radiates to the pelvic area. The pain tends to increase in intensity with time, making it hard to carry out day-to-day activities.
The growth of the tumor on an ovary exerts pressure on and causes pain in different parts of the body, including the lower back.
Back pain can happen for a wide variety of reasons, but if accompanied with other symptoms mentioned in this article, consult your doctor immediately.
8. Shortness of Breath or Difficulty Breathing
Having shortness of breath or difficulty breathing is also quite common in women with cancer of the ovary.
As the cancer spreads to nearby areas, it leads to a buildup of fluid in the abdomen and the lining of the abdomen becomes irritated.
The accumulated fluid puts pressure on abdominal organs as well as the diaphragm, causing symptoms like shortness of breath and chest pain.
If you are suddenly having shortness of breath without doing any laborious task, consult a doctor. It can be due to several reasons and it’s important to find out the exact cause and get it treated.
9. Changes in Bowel Habits
If you notice changes in your bowel habits, such as constipation or diarrhea, it can be a telltale sign of ovarian cancer. Women suffering from this cancer may complain about changes in bowel habits off and on.
The sudden change in bowel habits happen when the tumor swells and exerts pressure on the stomach, bowel and bladder. Depending upon the area on which the pressure is exerted, it can lead to either constipation or diarrhea.
If the symptoms are persistent, frequent and unpredictable, make an appointment with your doctor.
10. Constant Fatigue
If you feel very tired all the time or feel like sleeping more and more without any changes in your daily routine, it can signal an underlying condition, including many types of cancer.
Cancer can result in a reduced number of healthy red blood cells, which causes anemia and constant fatigue due to a decreased supply of oxygen being delivered throughout the body.
If you are getting adequate rest and sleeping properly but still feel low in energy throughout the day, consult your doctor. Early diagnosis means better treatment outcomes for any type of cancer, including ovarian cancer.