Potential ovarian cancer symptoms no woman should ignore

There’s a reason ovarian cancer is known as “The Silent Killer.” Unlike many other cancers, its symptoms are often ignored — by both women and doctors alike — until the cancer has progressed so far that it is often too late to successfully treat it. 

Symptoms that May suggest ovarian cancer include: • abdominal bloating or swelling • quickly feeling full when eating • weight loss • discomfort in the pelvic area • fatigue • back pain • changes in bowel habits, such as constipation • a frequent need to urinateThe Mayo Clinic reports that only about 20 percent of ovarian cancers are found at an early, more treatable stage. If the cancer is discovered early, about 94 percent of patients live more than five years after diagnosis. 

Dr. Heidi Godoy, who practices at New York Oncology Hematology cancer center, says that about 75 percent of patients are diagnosed at an advanced stage. “It’s the silent killer,” she says, “because the most common stage [of diagnosis] is stage 3. It’s a lethal diagnosis to have.”

While about 75 percent can go into remission with chemotherapy, Godoy says, there is a 75 percent chance of recurrence. “There is a high recurrence rate with this type of cancer,” she says. “It’s treatable, but that’s different from curable. The average survival rate is five to six years.” 

Paying attention to symptoms that many women and doctors can easily attribute to something else — often something seemingly more benign — is critical to successful treatment, Godoy says. This is especially true because unlike many other cancers, ovarian cancer does not have any screening tools as effective, say, as a colonoscopy or mammogram. 

A list of the symptoms that may suggest ovarian cancer (see box) proves how easy it is to dismiss until it’s too late. 

What woman hasn’t felt fatigue, had abdominal bloating or felt the need to frequently urinate? “For bloating, we often write it off as we ate something wrong,” Godoy says. “We often don’t put all the symptoms together. As women, we tend to be caregivers for everyone else. We put down these annoyances every day and don’t link them together until it’s an advanced disease.” 

Godoy is direct about why creating ovarian cancer screening tests is not on the top of the medical research list. Only about 100,000 women get ovarian cancer annually. In contrast, while prostate cancer is the most common cancer among men — with 288,300 men in the U.S. likely to be diagnosed in 2023 — the death rate from the disease continues to drop because of screening guidelines and prostate-specific antigen testing, according to cancer.net.

“There’s no money put into (ovarian cancer) because it’s considered rare,” she says. “The problem with ovarian cancer is the tumor is … made up of different tumor clones so it’s hard to pinpoint one screening test. There’s no good imaging or blood test.” 

So what’s a woman with some of these symptoms to do? 

Even post-menopause, women should still see their OB-GYN annually, Godoy says. “Have a pelvic exam yearly. You still need this even if you no longer get a Pap smear.” (See our story about why you still need to see your gynecologist later in life.)

If you have symptoms, see your primary doctor. “Don’t let them blow you off,” says Godoy. “Ask for a specialist. Consider your health as important as the people you care for. Be the squeaky wheel.” 

Family history is an important part of this story too, Godoy says. “Be sure your family history is taken seriously. Family history is something we think is static, but it’s not. And your children should know it too.

“The big thing,” she concludes, “is an annual exam with an internal exam. Listen to your body.”

Top photo: iStockphoto.com/Panuwat Dangsungnoen.

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