Ovarian Cancer Symptoms, Facts & Resources
Symptoms of ovarian cancer:
Historically ovarian cancer was called the “silent killer” because symptoms were not thought to develop until the chance of cure was poor. However, recent studies have shown this term is untrue and that the following symptoms are much more likely to occur in women with ovarian cancer than women in the general population. These symptoms include:
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
- Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
- Urinary symptoms (urgency or frequency)
Women who have these symptoms almost daily for more than a few weeks should see their doctor, preferably a gynecologist. Prompt medical evaluation may lead to detection at the earliest possible stage of the disease. Early stage diagnosis is associated with an improved prognosis.
Several other symptoms have been commonly reported by women with ovarian cancer. These symptoms include fatigue, indigestion, back pain, pain with intercourse, constipation and menstrual irregularities. However, these other symptoms are not as useful in identifying ovarian cancer because they are also found in equal frequency in women in the general population who do not have ovarian cancer.
Risk factors for ovarian cancer:
The exact causes of ovarian cancer are not known. However, studies show that the following risk factors may increase the chance of developing this disease:
- Family history — first-degree relatives (mother, daughter, sister), especially if two or more have had the disease. A family history of breast or colon cancer also is associated with an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.
- Age — most ovarian cancers occur in women 50 years of age or older, with the highest risk in women older than 60.
- Non-childbearing — women who have never had children. In fact, the more children a woman has had, the less likely she is to develop ovarian cancer.
- Personal history — women who have had breast or colon cancer may be at greater risk.
- Obesity – women who are obese have a higher rate of death from ovarian cancer.
- Fertility drugs — drugs that cause women to ovulate may slightly increase a woman’s risk.
- Talc — some studies suggest that women who have used talc in the genital area for many years may be at increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.
- Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) — some evidence suggests that women who use HRT after menopause may have a slightly increased risk of developing this disease.
Ways ovarian cancer is diagnosed:
Many times women with ovarian cancer have no symptoms or just mild symptoms until the disease is in an advanced stage. Ovarian cancer is difficult to diagnose and is often diagnosed after the disease is advanced. Some diagnostic exams and tests that may be useful are:
- Pelvic exam — includes feeling the uterus, vagina, ovaries, fallopian tubes, bladder and rectum to find any abnormality in their shape or size.
- Ultrasound — uses high-frequency sound waves. These waves are aimed at the ovaries and produce a pattern of echoes to create a picture (sonogram). Healthy tissues, fluid-filled cysts and tumors look different on this picture.
- CA-125 assay — a blood test used to measure the level of CA-125, a tumor marker that is often found in higher-than-normal amounts in the blood of women with ovarian cancer as well as other cancers.
- Lower Gastrointestinal series or barium enema — a series of X-rays of the colon and rectum. The pictures are taken after the patient is given an enema with a white, chalky solution containing barium. The barium outlines the colon and rectum making tumors or other abnormal areas easier to see.
- Computerized Axial Tomography (CAT) scan — a series of detailed pictures of the organs inside the body created by a computer linked to an X-ray machine.
- Biopsy — the removal of tissue for examination under a microscope. A definitive diagnosis of ovarian cancer requires surgery. The initial surgery has two purposes. First, to remove any cancer that exists (or as much as possible), including removing the ovaries and the uterus; and second, to sample tissues and surrounding lymph nodes to determine where the tumor has spread and the stage of the disease. The best prognosis for survival occur when all the cancer can be removed.
Ovarian Cancer Resources:
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention