Ovarian cancer, a type of gynecologic cancer, begins when the genes that regulate cell growth mutate and allow abnormal cells to thrive. These rogue cells multiply at a rapid rate and eventually form a tumor. Left untreated, ovarian cancer can spread to other areas of your body. Ovarian cancer rates are highest in women in their early to mid-60s.
Although ovarian cancer is considered rare in women under 40, it's important to know that women of all ages can develop ovarian cancer. Fertility treatments, endometriosis, obesity, and a family history of ovarian, breast, or uterine cancer can increase your risk of developing ovarian cancer.
Only 19 percent of women who discover they have ovarian cancer are diagnosed in the early stages. Diagnosing ovarian cancer can be more difficult because there are no routine tests to effectively screen for the disease. That's why all women should consult their physician if they experience any of the following signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer.
- Changes in appetite
- Menstrual changes
- Abdominal bloating or increasing size
- Pelvic discomfort
- Frequent urination
- Fatigue or low energy
- Unintentional weight loss
- Gastrointestinal disturbances
- Leg swelling
Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer
In its earliest stages, ovarian cancer does not cause symptoms. As the disease progresses, there may be symptoms, but many women ignore the warning signs because the symptoms of ovarian cancer mimic so many other far less serious concerns. That's why all women should pay close attention to their bodies, stay alert for changes in their health, and resist the temptation to self-diagnose. Unusual symptoms should not be ignored.
Early detection of ovarian cancer can impact the outcome of treatment. You should consult your healthcare provider if you are experiencing any of these troubling symptoms more than 12 days per month or if you have consistent symptoms for more than two weeks.
1. Changes in Appetite
Yes, there are many possible explanations for variations in your appetite. But if you have unexplained changes that cannot be explained by temporary digestive disturbances or stress, it's important to bring your symptoms to the attention of your healthcare provider. Changes in appetite can be one of the first signs of ovarian cancer. Many women find they feel unusually full after eating a small amount of food. If you have ovarian cancer, you might find it difficult to finish even a small meal regardless of how hungry you felt before eating. Some women find eating causes nausea and vomiting.
2. Menstrual Changes
Although irregular periods are not necessarily a sign of ovarian cancer, a history of irregular cycles can increase your risk. Some women diagnosed with ovarian cancer report menstruating more frequently than once each month or note spotting between periods. If you are not yet menopausal and suddenly have an irregular cycle or more period pain than usual, you should consider scheduling an appointment with your gynecologist. This is especially true if you are taking oral birth control. If you are post-menopausal, any unexpected bleeding should be investigated by your healthcare provider.
3. Abdominal Bloating
Bloating is a common complaint noted by researchers investigating the signs of ovarian cancer. Before they are diagnosed, many women initially assume their abdominal distention is caused by age, fluid retention, or unhealthy diet. The bloating caused by ovarian cancer can be mild or severe. Some women find their bloating so pronounced they need to buy larger clothes. An expanded waistline can be caused by increasing tumor size or by fluid retention in the abdomen (ascites) experienced by people with liver disease or some types of cancer. Abdominal bloating may be accompanied by digestive disturbances or changes in appetite, but you can experience bloating or increased girth with or without abdominal discomfort.
4. Pelvic Discomfort
Since period pain is common and most often considered normal, many women initially blame their menstrual cycles for the pelvic discomfort caused by ovarian cancer. Some blame digestive disturbances, noting heartburn, bloating, constipation, and gas. But it's important to know that pelvic pain in your abdomen, hip area, or lower back could be a sign of ovarian cancer. When tumors spread in the abdomen or pelvis, they can irritate tissues in your lower back. If pelvic discomfort is new to you, or increases in intensity, consider scheduling an appointment with your gynecologist.
5. Frequent Urination
Your bladder and ovaries are close together. Tumors or swelling in or around your ovaries can cause urinary disturbances. Many women with ovarian cancer find they feel the urge to urinate more frequently in the weeks or months before their diagnosis. Some assume they have a urinary tract infection because the symptoms are similar. If you have ovarian cancer you may notice increased urgency, burning pain with urination, bladder spasms, or difficulty emptying your bladder.
6. Low Energy or Fatigue
Ordinarily, a little rest is all you should need to recover when you feel tired. If you find you have significantly less energy than usual or do not feel refreshed after an adequate amount of sleep, it's important to notify your health care provider. Scheduling an appointment is particularly important if constant fatigue is interfering with your ability to enjoy your usual activities. Although there are numerous potential causes of unrelenting fatigue, loss of energy and fatigue can be a sign of ovarian cancer.
7. Unintentional Weight Loss
If you've lost more than five percent of your body weight over the past six to twelve months without changes to your diet or exercise habits, it may be time to consult your physician. Nearly 40 percent of people first diagnosed with cancer report unexplained weight loss. Women with advanced ovarian cancer may also experience cachexia, a syndrome resulting in weight loss and muscle wasting. Cachexia can be caused by substances manufactured by tumors or an immune system response to the disease itself.
8. Gastrointestinal Disturbances
Gastrointestinal symptoms are the most commonly reported complaints leading to an ovarian cancer diagnosis. Women ignoring gastrointestinal disturbances are considerably more likely to be diagnosed in the later stages of the disease. That's why it may be important to know that many of the initial signs of ovarian cancer mimic the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, a condition caused by hypersensitivity in the small intestine. Since both conditions can cause abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation, women experiencing IBS symptoms for three weeks or more should talk with their doctor about ovarian cancer testing.
9. Leg Swelling
One of the first signs of ovarian cancer could be fluid retention in your feet, ankles, or lower legs. Fluid accumulation could cause your legs to feel unusually heavy. As swelling progresses, your skin may look stretched or shiny. Swollen areas may remain indented after applying pressure, a condition is known as pitting edema. Although leg swelling can be caused by several unrelated health concerns, ovarian cancer is one of several cancer types known to cause edema. About 20 percent of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer develop leg swelling.
Although the many possible symptoms can be explained by other conditions not related to ovarian cancer, your symptoms should not be dismissed as unimportant. The many potential symptoms of ovarian cancer are often overlooked until the disease has progressed.
If the results of your examination or imaging tests suggest you may have ovarian cancer, your healthcare provider will likely recommend consulting with a gynecological oncologist, a specialist who treats cancers of the female reproductive system.
Virginia Oncology Associates specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer and blood disorders, including cancers of the female reproductive system. With locations spanning southeast Virginia and Northeastern North Carolina, we are committed to improving lives by providing personalized, compassionate, state-of-the-art care. Our cancer centers are located throughout cities in Hampton Roads and Eastern North Carolina, including in Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Hampton, Williamsburg, Chesapeake, Suffolk, Newport News, and Elizabeth City.