We’ve long considered ovarian cancer a silent killer with few, if any, early symptoms. However, it turns out ovarian cancer may not be as stealthy as we once thought. There are, in fact, some early signs of the disease that are important to recognize.
Why is it so crucial? The unfortunate reality is that more than 70 percent of women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed when the cancer is more advanced and has a poorer prognosis.
The five-year survival rate (the percentage of women who survive for five years or more after diagnosis) for early-stage ovarian cancer is about 80 to 90 percent.
The five-year survival rate for advanced-stage ovarian cancer varies from about 28 to 40 percent.
“Women tend to ignore early signs of ovarian cancer or think their symptoms are simply related to aging, weight gain or other less serious problems,” says Amina Ahmed, MD, a gynecologic oncologist at Rush. “That’s what makes ovarian cancer so difficult to detect early, when it is most curable.”
Taking symptoms of ovarian cancer seriously is also important because there is currently no screening method for ovarian cancer for women who do not have symptoms and do not have a family history or BRCA genetic mutations (which put them at a higher risk for developing ovarian cancer).
Don’t ignore these common ovarian cancer symptoms
While ovarian cancer symptoms can be vague, the key is paying attention to how long symptoms last, according to Ahmed. “The story for so many women with ovarian cancer is that they’ve actually had symptoms for months before diagnosis,” she says.
Talk to your doctor if your symptoms are sustained — they don’t come and go, they do not go away within one to three weeks, or over-the-counter medications don’t help. By recognizing these early symptoms, women may have a fighting chance to catch — and treat — the disease before it progresses:
Almost every woman has experienced bloating, an uncomfortable feeling of fullness in your belly. While it is normal to feel bloated, especially around your monthly cycle, consistent bloating that lasts every day for up to three weeks is not.
Persistently feeling bloated and full is one of the most common early signs of ovarian cancer. And bloating accompanied by abdominal distension (visible swelling in your stomach) could be a red flag that there is a problem.
GI issues can be linked to everything from stress and anxiety to irritable bowel syndrome and ovarian cancer. When it comes to ovarian cancer, a common GI symptom is constipation.
“Pay attention to any changes in your bowel habits,” Ahmed says. “Specifically, new constipation that is not relieved by any interventions can be a sign.”
3. Prolonged pain
Persistent pressure in the abdomen and pelvis and/or lower back pain that lasts for one to three weeks can signal a problem. While this vague ovarian cancer symptom can accompany any number of conditions, it is important to note if the pain is new to you, it does not come and go, and cannot be easily attributed to other factors.
If your pain improves when your stress is alleviated, then your symptoms are likely related to stress. If your pain improves if you make some changes in your diet, it is likely a GI-related problem.
“Unfortunately, it can be really hard to differentiate between symptoms of ovarian cancer and GI- or stress-related problems,” Ahmed says. “That’s why so many women see a number of specialists before they are finally diagnosed.”
If you have these symptoms, if they are not going away and if you’ve tried finding relief on your own, talk to your doctor about the following tests:
A pelvic exam
A GI evaluation, which includes a physical exam and possibly GI tests (e.g., endoscopy, colonoscopy)
CT scan, MRI or ultrasound
Women tend to ignore early signs of ovarian cancer or think their symptoms are simply related to aging, weight gain or other less serious problems. That’s what makes ovarian cancer so difficult to detect early, when it is most curable.
4. Change in bladder function
Typically, when women experience urinary problems, such as pain when urinating or urgency, they frequently think it’s a urinary tract infection. Often, it is.
But bladder-related issues can also signal a gynecologic or reproductive problem, like ovarian cancer.
Specific urinary symptoms associated with ovarian cancer include the following:
Feeling pressure or pain in the bladder
Sudden, urgent need to urinate
“If these urinary symptoms are new to you and last more than several days, that’s a problem,” says Ahmed. “Talk to your OB/GYN or primary care physician and let them know you are concerned about both bladder problems and issues with your reproductive system.”
5. Difficulty eating
A loss of appetite is a common ovarian cancer symptom.
In addition to a loss of appetite, early signs of ovarian cancer include feeling full quickly and having difficulty finishing even small meals. If this is a new symptom for you, contact your doctor.