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7 Signs of Ovarian Cancer You Shouldn’t Ignore

September 29, 2023

Early signs of ovarian cancer are more of a whisper than a shout.

So how can women monitor for this hard-to-detect disease?

We asked a gynecologic oncologist what you need to know about detecting ovarian cancer.

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The symptoms can be easy to miss.

Ovarian cancer has few early signs – and those that do appear can be easy to miss, says Amanda Ramos, MD, a Hartford HealthCare gynecologic oncologist seeing patients in New Britain and Manchester.

“Symptoms tend to be subtle and those women commonly experience as part of daily life,” she explains.

But cancer cells in the ovaries can multiply quickly and destroy healthy tissues, which makes early detection even more important. A woman’s risk of ovarian cancer is 1 in 78, and her risk of dying from the disease is about 1 in 108.

> Related: Could Ultra-Processed Foods Cause Ovarian and Breast Cancer?

The early signs of ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer typically develops in older women, with signs that include:

  • Abdominal or pelvic pain
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling full quickly

Symptoms are mild in the disease’s early stages, Dr. Ramos stresses. They typically don’t become severe until the cancer grows larger or causes fluid collection and distention of the abdomen.

“Because of the size and shape of the pelvis, the area can accommodate a lot of fluid and larger masses without the person noticing,” she says.

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If ovarian cancer spreads, more symptoms will appear.

If ovarian cancer goes undetected, it can grow and spread in the abdominal cavity. This, Dr. Ramos explains, causes even more symptoms as it presses against bowels, bladder or lungs. These can include:

  • Constipation or other changes in bowel habits
  • Abdominal bloating
  • Changes in urination – either a need to go more often or trouble going
  • Vaginal bleeding

You might even have less appetite or experience chest pain.

The location of the ovaries near the abdomen means growth could nudge against the stomach, Dr. Ramos explains. Added fluid prohibits the stomach from expanding to accommodate food.

“Ovarian cancers can form a malignant fluid called ascites that fills the abdomen and places pressure on organs like the stomach and intestines. This can lead to early satiety and decreased appetite,” she says. “Patients may also notice they are gaining weight even though they can’t eat large amounts of food.”

The same concept applies to chest pain and trouble breathing.

“Unfortunately, ovarian cancers can spread to the chest, and patients may experience difficulty breathing or pain both in the chest and back,” Dr. Ramos says.

When to see a doctor.

Always listen to your body and talk to your primary care physician if something seems wrong or different.

“A patient knows their body better than anybody else,” Dr. Ramos says.

Your doctor may order a pelvic ultrasound to assess the ovaries, a colonoscopy and a CT scan to examine the abdomen and pelvis.

“The majority of the time, the cause of their symptoms is unrelated to the ovaries and not likely cancer. However, it’s extremely important to be evaluated if you feel something is wrong,” she says.

If ovarian cancer is diagnosed, the standard of care is chemotherapy and surgery, a very successful approach. Medication given after treatment helps prolong life and decrease risk of the cancer coming back in some patients.