In 2023, ovarian cancer will see approximately 19,710 new cases and claim 13,270 lives in the United States alone. But these statistics are more than just numbers — they represent our mothers, sisters, and friends. Ovarian cancer ranks as the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths among women, and it stands out as the deadliest form of female reproductive system cancer.
These facts underscore the gravity of the issue, but it's crucial to remember that knowledge and early detection can be our best defense. What makes ovarian cancer especially concerning is its ability to hide in plain sight. Often referred to as a silent disease, it can quietly advance without noticeable symptoms until it reaches an advanced stage.
Here, we'll delve into the subtle early symptoms of ovarian cancer, explore who is most at risk, and emphasize the paramount importance of early intervention.
Ovarian cancer awareness can help people make informed decisions about their health. Knowing the early symptoms of ovarian cancer can lead to early-stage diagnosis and lifesaving treatment.
Five-year survival rates—how many patients are still alive five years after diagnosis—are as follows:
While some risk factors, such as age and family history, cannot be altered, awareness can prompt early detection and intervention. Regular gynecological examinations, including pelvic exams and transvaginal ultrasound, can help identify ovarian cancer in its early stages when treatment is most effective.
Stage I ovarian cancer often doesn’t have obvious symptoms, which is one of the reasons why it’s difficult to detect early. However, there can be subtle signs and symptoms that may be easily overlooked or mistaken for more common benign (non-cancerous) conditions.
Please note: If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms, we recommend seeing your healthcare practitioner as soon as possible.
Persistent, unexplained abdominal pain is a common early symptom of ovarian cancer. This pain can be sharp, stabbing, or dull and may be felt in the lower abdomen, pelvis, or both.
A persistent feeling of bloating or fullness in the abdomen is another early sign of ovarian cancer. This discomfort may be due to the growing tumor pressing on the digestive organs.
A sudden increase in the frequency or urgency to urinate can be a symptom of ovarian cancer. The growing tumor may put pressure on the bladder, leading to these changes.
Unexplained weight loss is a common symptom of ovarian cancer. Cancer cells consume energy stores and interfere with nutrient absorption, leading to weight loss.
Unexplained fatigue is another common symptom of ovarian cancer. Cancer can cause the body to produce substances that lead to tiredness.
Pain during intercourse can be a symptom of ovarian cancer. The growing tumor may irritate the nerves in the pelvic area, causing discomfort during intercourse.
Back pain can be a symptom of ovarian cancer. The growing tumor may put pressure on the nerves in the back, leading to discomfort.
Nausea and vomiting can be symptoms of ovarian cancer. The growing tumor may irritate the stomach, causing nausea and vomiting.
Changes in bowel habits, such as constipation or diarrhea, can be symptoms of ovarian cancer. The growing tumor may put pressure on the intestines, leading to altered bowel habits.
While the exact causes of ovarian cancer remain unclear, several factors can increase the risk of developing this disease. Understanding these risk factors can help in early detection and prevention strategies. Ovarian cancer risk factors include age, family history, reproductive history, and certain genetic markers.
Age is a significant risk factor for ovarian cancer. The risk increases with age, with many cases diagnosed in women over 50. This is likely due to the cumulative exposure to hormones and other factors that can contribute to cancer development.
A family history of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, or colorectal cancer significantly increases a woman’s risk. This is because certain inherited genetic mutations, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, can increase the susceptibility to these cancers. If you have a close relative with ovarian cancer, talk to your oncologist about genetic counseling to assess your risk.
Certain factors related to a woman’s reproductive history can also influence her ovarian cancer risk. For instance, women who have never been pregnant have a slightly higher risk of ovarian cancer compared to those who have had children.
Endometriosis, a condition where uterine lining tissue grows outside the uterus, is associated with an increased risk of ovarian cancer.
Long-term use of HRT, particularly estrogen-only therapy, may slightly increase the risk of ovarian cancer. However, the benefits of HRT in managing menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes and bone loss, often outweigh the potential risks. Discuss with your healthcare practitioner if HRT is right for you and the appropriate duration of treatment.
In addition to BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations, other genetic markers have been linked to an increased risk of ovarian cancer. These include mutations in genes associated with Lynch syndrome and the genes BRIP1, RAD51C, and RAD51D. Genetic testing can help identify individuals with these predispositions, allowing for early detection and intervention strategies.
Certain other factors may also play a role in ovarian cancer risk, but the evidence is less conclusive. These include obesity, smoking, and exposure to asbestos or talcum powder.
Signs of ovarian cancer can be difficult to diagnose early because the early symptoms of ovarian cancer are often vague and can be mistaken for other conditions. However, the tests used to diagnose ovarian cancer include the following.
It’s important to note that ultrasounds rely significantly on the technician's skill and may sometimes yield uncertain results. As a more definitive alternative, MRI offers enhanced clarity in detecting potential abnormalities in the ovaries. For example, adipose (fatty) tissue and blood components comprise the bulk of ovarian masses and are particularly sensitive to magnetic resonance imaging. This capability makes it a valuable tool in assessing and diagnosing ovarian conditions.
There are several types of ovarian cancer. These include:
The treatment for ovarian cancer depends on the type of cancer, its stage, and factors like age, overall health, and personal preferences. Cancer treatment options for ovarian cancer will vary but may include the following:
Surgery is the most common treatment for ovarian cancer. The goal of surgery is to remove as much of the cancer as possible. In some cases, the ovaries, fallopian tubes, and uterus will be removed.
Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to kill cancer cells. It can be administered through IV or orally.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to destroy cancer cells. It is typically administered after surgery to eliminate any remaining cancer cells.
Targeted therapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses drugs to target specific molecules in cancer cells. Targeted therapy is often combined with other treatments, such as chemotherapy.
Immunotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. Immunotherapy is still new but cancer research and clinical trials show promise.
We know that early detection and prompt cancer care for ovarian cancer can significantly impact survival rates. Insidious symptoms like bloating, abdominal pain, and changes in bowel habits, including constipation, are common in the early stages of this disease. Back pain, weight loss, and loss of appetite are also signs to watch out for. After menopause, women on hormone replacement therapy and those with ovarian cysts should be particularly vigilant for early symptoms of ovarian cancer.
Discuss with your healthcare practitioner the need for diagnostic tests such as a pelvic exam, a transvaginal ultrasound, or a CA-125 blood test if you are experiencing any unexplained symptoms potentially associated with ovarian cancer.
Don’t know where to begin in your quest for better health? Start with Ezra’s risk factor calculator. It’s easy to use and completely free, and it takes into consideration your family history, genetic mutations like BRCA1, and previous cancer diagnoses.
While the Ezra Full Body Scan is not diagnostic for ovarian cancer, it is very good at characterizing soft tissues and can help identify ovarian cysts, endometriomas, and possible masses. By taking this proactive step and staying attuned to your body, you're enhancing your well-being and taking control of your health journey.