Often called the “silent killer” or “whispering disease,” ovarian cancer can be difficult to detect in its early stages because the symptoms often go unnoticed or overlooked.
September is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, and although it's not as common as breast cancer, it's just as important to know the warning signs of ovarian cancer.
What is ovarian cancer?
Ovarian cancer takes the form of tumors affecting the ovaries — the two female reproductive glands that produce ova (eggs) and the hormones estrogen and progesterone. Many of these tumors are benign or non-cancerous. Only malignant tumors are a threat to metastasize of spread form the ovaries to other areas of the body. The great majority of ovarian cancers are epithelial, meaning they affect the outer layer or skin of the ovary. Such cancers are therefore also described as carcinomas.
Ovarian cancer should not be confused with ovarian cysts. Many women experience ovarian cysts, but in most cases, ovarian cysts are not cancerous and go away without treatment. A very small number of ovarian cysts can be cancerous, but surgically removing the cyst is the only way to determine if it is cancerous.
What are the early warning signs of ovarian cancer?
Many of the earliest symptoms of ovarian cancer are overlooked because they are similar to other common illnesses. These symptoms include:
- Abdominal bloating, pressure and/or pain.
- Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly.
- Increased urination or urge to urinate.
Ovarian cancer may also cause other symptoms, including:
- Indigestion or heartburn
- Upset stomach
- Back pain
- Menstrual changes
- Pain during sex
- Abdominal swelling
- Weight loss
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, don’t be alarmed. These symptoms are often temporary, are typically caused by other conditions and easily treated. However, if you experience persistent or unusual symptoms or are concerned, schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider.
How is ovarian cancer diagnosed?
A biopsy — in which a small sample of tissue is removed from the ovary and analyzed for cancer cells — is the only way to confirm whether you have ovarian cancer, but your doctor may also perform other tests to get information. These tests include:
- Transvaginal ultrasound. This imaging test is used to detect tumors in the reproductive organs. While this test may detect tumors, it cannot determine whether the tumors are cancerous.
- Abdominal and pelvic CT scan or MRI.
- Blood test. This biomarker test is used to measure cancer antigen 125 (CA-125) levels in the blood. Other factors such as menstruation, uterine fibroids and uterine cancer can also affect CA-125 levels.
What are the risk factors for ovarian cancer?
As with many cancers, the cause of ovarian cancer is unknown, but there are several factors can put some women at greater risk. These include:
- A family history of ovarian cancer.
- Genetic mutations such as BRCA1 or BRCA2.
- History of breast, uterine or colon cancer.
- Use of certain fertility drugs or hormone therapies.
- No history of pregnancy.
- Age, as most ovarian cancers develop after menopause.
If you are concerned about any of these risk factors, ask you primary care physician about your screening and early detection options, such as regular pelvic exams
At The Goshen Center for Cancer Care, we treat a wide range of cancers, including ovarian cancer. Our specially trained experts are skilled in the most advanced ovarian cancer treatments, including surgery, radiation and medical oncology. We also combine effective natural therapies and supportive services to treat the whole person, not just the cancer.
If you have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, contact our oncology information specialists to learn more about our approach to treating cancer at (888) 492-4673.