10 Signs Of Ovarian Cancer You May Be Overlooking

Ovarian cancer is often called a silent cancer because it typically exhibits vague or no symptoms in the early stages of the disease. Even though it might be simple to ignore annoying signs, it is crucial to know what they are, especially if they linger or become persistent (via Siteman Cancer Center).

According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 19,880 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the United States this year. Furthermore, the disease will claim the lives of more than 12,000 women. Ovarian cancer is the leading cause of death among female reproductive cancers. 

Early detection leads to better recovery outcomes. As a result, it is critical to follow your healthcare provider's recommendations for regular gynecological exams and check-ups. Additionally, the American Association for Cancer Research reports that genetics, which causes inherited mutations, can cause up to 10% of ovarian cancers. It is critical to understand your family history, because genetic tests can be performed to determine if you are at high risk for the mutated genes that will increase your risk of cancer development.

Risk factors that may be overlooked

Certain risk factors can increase someone's likelihood of developing ovarian cancer — though of course, even if these risk factors are present, they do not guarantee that someone will contract the disease. According to the American Cancer Society, age is a common risk factor for ovarian cancer. Indeed, more than 50% of diagnoses are in women 63 and over. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) mentions that family history and genetic changes, such as BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations, account for 10% of all ovarian cancers each year. In addition, long-term use of estrogen may increase the risk of developing this type of cancer.

It is also important to note that ovarian cancer can develop without associated risk factors. According to the Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance, taking oral contraceptives, having one or more pregnancies, and breastfeeding can reduce your risk of developing ovarian cancer.

What to know about abdominal bloating or swelling

It is normal to experience periodic bloating, especially if you've overindulged at mealtime or eaten gas-producing foods such as beans or broccoli. In addition, many women experience bloating during the menstrual cycle (via Healthline). However, abdominal swelling is one of the warning signs of ovarian cancer. A study published in The Patient reported that 72% of patients diagnosed with ovarian cancer described abdominal swelling and bloat symptoms. This is often one of the first signs that something is wrong, and can be easily overlooked.

You should see a doctor immediately if you notice swelling in your abdomen, especially if it is accompanied by other symptoms such as bloating, pain, or fatigue. Ovarian cancer can impact the immune system and disrupt lymphatic drainage. If this happens, fluid can go back into the abdominal cavity, causing swelling, pressure, and even shortness of breath (via WebMD). 

Unexpected changes in weight

Ovarian cancer can negatively impact your body, but many people are unaware that it can cause unexpected weight changes. Weight varies throughout life, with many people putting on pounds until around the age of 60, when weight loss may occur due to decreased muscle mass. According to a study published in The Journal of Gerontology, age is associated with increased visceral fat, which increases abdominal girth. A change in abdominal circumference due to disease can therefore be easily misinterpreted as being part of this normal aging process.

So, if you're putting on padding around your waistline, especially with no changes in habits or lifestyle, you should not ignore this change — rather, bring it to the attention of your healthcare professional, as this can be a symptom of ovarian cancer. Weight changes are frequently overlooked as a normal part of life for women with undiagnosed ovarian cancer (via Medical News Today).

Persistent unexplained fatigue

Symptoms of ovarian cancer can be very ambiguous. Fatigue is a common symptom of ovarian cancer, and of many other conditions. It's essential to pay attention to your body and how you feel, especially if you're experiencing other symptoms like abdominal pain or bloating, as Advanced Ovarian Cancer states. Cancer can cause fatigue by producing toxic waste in the body that changes how healthy cells function. Furthermore, cancer can alter hormone and protein levels in the body. As these levels fluctuate, inflammation forms, and fatigue can worsen. A lack of physical activity, a low red blood cell count (anemia), and several other factors can all contribute to feeling tired or fatigued if you have ovarian cancer, according to the Cancer Council. If you're experiencing fatigue and other symptoms, it is important to talk to your doctor so that they can determine if ovarian cancer is the cause.

Chronic back pain may be a warning sign of ovarian cancer

Lower back pain is a common symptom that many women experience throughout their lives. It can be caused by various medical conditions such as muscle strain or spine issues — but it can also be a sign of ovarian cancer. The relationship between ovarian cancer and back pain is a critical topic. My Ovarian Cancer Team reported that up to 45% of patients diagnosed with ovarian cancer experience lower back pain as a symptom. While it may be mild in some cases, others may experience severe discomfort that interferes with their quality of life. Back pain due to ovarian cancer metastasis is frequently caused by tumors pressing against nerves or organs in the abdomen, putting pressure on the lower spine region.

As a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) notes, frequent symptoms of back pain that worsen and do not resolve should be investigated further, because this kind of lingering symptom can indicate ovarian cancer that has reached an advanced stage.

Constipation may be an early sign of ovarian cancer

Constipation is a gastrointestinal problem that many of us will face at one time or another. It is defined as having fewer than three bowel movements in a week. Most of the stool will be hard and dry, and may become difficult to pass (via Johns Hopkins Medicine). A variety of factors can cause constipation, including a lack of fiber in the diet, not drinking enough water, or certain medications. And in turn, constipation can lead to a variety of other problems, including abdominal pain, bloating, and hemorrhoids.

Though constipation doesn't always signal something more serious, according to Women and Infants, it's a frequently reported symptom of ovarian cancer. There are several reasons women with ovarian cancer develop constipation as reported by WebMD. For instance, if you have a tumor that is pushing on the intestine, it may create a blockage or narrowing. In addition, cancer treatments and dehydration can make matters worse. If you have prolonged constipation that isn't eased by first-line methods like hydrating, consuming fiber, or using laxatives, you should seek medical advice.

Frequent urge to urinate may be an early sign of ovarian cancer

The need to urinate more often than usual is referred to as urinary frequency. This can range from feeling the urge every hour or two to needing to pee as often as every ten minutes. Certain medications or the amount of fluids you drink each day can also cause urinary frequency (via Clinical Methods). However, frequent urination often indicates an underlying medical condition and should not be ignored. Ovarian cancer is one such condition that can cause an increased need to urinate. According to a JAMA study, nearly 35% of women with ovarian cancer reported experiencing urinary frequency as a symptom of their disease. Because the ovaries are located near the bladder, when they become inflamed or a tumor forms, it can cause increased pressure on the urinary tract, causing a constant urge to pee. You should seek medical help if you have frequent or urgent urination and other symptoms like bloating, abdominal pain, or changes in your menstrual cycle that do not resolve independently (via Arizona Oncology).

Should you be concerned about irregular or post-menopausal bleeding?

There are a number of reasons why someone with female reproductive organs may experience abnormal vaginal bleeding — and while some of the causes are benign, others are more serious medical conditions. For instance, bleeding may result from ovulation, uterine fibroids or polyps, and, on rare occasions, implantation in the early stages of pregnancy (via Medical News Today). However, bleeding and irregularities or changes in the menstrual cycle can also signal ovarian cancer or another type of gynecological cancer (such as cervical or vaginal cancer). If you notice irregularities in your menstrual cycle – including an unusually heavy flow, missed periods, or changes in your expected menstrual schedule — or if you experience any unusual bleeding or pain accompanied by other symptoms, especially if you're post-menopausal, you should consult a doctor to rule out any potential problems (via Moffitt Cancer Center).

Pelvic pain and pain during sexual intercourse should not be ignored

Pelvic pain and/or pain during intercourse are common warning signs of ovarian cancer that may be overlooked. Such pain can appear in various locations, including the pelvis, abdomen, hips, and back, or can manifest during sex (via Williamette Valley Cancer Institute and Research Center). According to the University of Texas Health, pain or tenderness is very common in patients with growing tumors. Often the pain may resemble period cramps, which can cause someone with this symptom to assume it's a normal part of their cycle. The size of the tumor and the organs or area it may be pressing on strongly influence the pain's location, type, and intensity.

The American Cancer Society reports that these symptoms could result from a non-cancerous disease process. What's important to remember is that if the pain isn't going away or is becoming more frequent, you should see your doctor.

Early detection of ovarian cancer is essential to improved long-term outcomes

Early detection of ovarian cancer is crucial to improving the survival rate. According to a study published in the Hematology, Oncology Clinics of North America, ovarian cancer discovered in stage one, confined to the ovary without spreading to other parts of the body, has a very high cure rate of 90%. In addition, seven out of ten women will survive if their ovarian cancer is diagnosed in stage two, when the disease is confined to the pelvis. Unfortunately, most ovarian cancers are discovered in stage three or four, which reduces the survival rate to 20% or less. These statistics show the importance of early detection and the need to listen to your body when something does not seem right. Because symptoms can seem benign, they can be ignored until they worsen, and you could face advanced disease by then.

According to Penn Medicine, there is no formal screening for ovarian cancer, making diagnosis even more difficult. As a result, if you have a genetic risk of cancer or first-degree relatives who have cancer, you should establish a routine check-up schedule with your healthcare provider.