Generally, when you’re sick, you can plan on dealing with some annoying symptoms that indicate that something’s wrong. Unfortunately, early ovarian cancer symptoms aren’t usually so obvious.
“Ovarian cancer has been known as the ‘silent killer’ because many women do not experience symptoms until after it is already widespread and considered advanced,” Eloise Chapman-Davis, M.D., gynecologic oncologist at NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine, tells SELF. “The pelvic cavity is large, and it can take time before a mass … becomes large enough to cause symptoms.”
This is part of why only around 20 percent of ovarian cancers are diagnosed in early stages, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). “Early-stage” ovarian cancer generally means that the cancer is confined to the ovaries and/or fallopian tubes (which is where many ovarian cancers actually start). Sadly, difficulty detecting this disease early enough is inextricably tied with cancer of the ovaries being the deadliest reproductive health cancer out there.
The problem isn’t just that symptoms typically arise when ovarian cancer is more advanced. If signs show up earlier, they’re often vague enough to ignore.
Even if someone does experience symptoms with early-stage ovarian cancer, they may chalk them up to something much more innocuous, Dr. Chapman-Davis says. This makes total sense when you look at the most common symptoms of early-stage ovarian cancer, according to the ACS:
- Pelvic or stomach pain
- Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
- Peeing frequently or feeling a constant urge to do so
These symptoms can obviously apply to so many different health conditions or even something like eating too much at dinner or having a urinary tract infection. So, to be super clear, experiencing these symptoms at random doesn’t mean you immediately need to worry about ovarian cancer, Shannon Westin, M.D., an associate professor in the department of gynecologic oncology and reproductive medicine at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, tells SELF.
Instead, as the ACS explains, these symptoms become potentially worrisome when they’re persistent and not normal for you. If these issues are new and you experience them more than 12 times a month, the ACS recommends seeing a doctor. (You can of course still make an appointment if these symptoms happen fewer than 12 times a month but something about them is still really worrying you.)
Also important to know: Although those symptoms above are the four most common signs of early-stage ovarian cancer, here are some other less common ones, according to the ACS:
- Upset stomach
- Back pain
- Pain during sex
- Changes in your period, like heavier or irregular bleeding
- Stomach swelling even though you’re losing weight
Just like the more common symptoms, these can all happen due to a slew of different things. See your doctor if they’re prolonged and worrying you.
While the symptoms are often hard to pick up on, it’s still possible to catch ovarian cancer early.
When ovarian cancer is detected early, about 94 percent of patients live longer than five years after diagnosis, according to the ACS. Since ovarian cancer is the deadliest reproductive health cancer, those are pretty remarkable odds.
There are a few things you can do to increase your chances of early ovarian cancer detection. One is having regular pelvic exams, the ACS says. During a pelvic exam, your doctor will feel your ovaries and uterus and may be able to feel if something is off. However, the ACS adds, it can be really difficult (or even impossible) to detect most early ovarian cancers by feel.
This is why it’s so essential to flag any strange and persistent symptoms for your doctor. Keep pushing for an answer if they seem to brush off your symptoms, or try to get a second opinion. Doctors are knowledgeable, but you know your body best. If you’re really worried that something is wrong, any doctor you see should take that seriously.
So what about ovarian cancer screening?
Unfortunately, there’s no standardized screening exam for ovarian cancer. Even the best ones have potential pitfalls, especially if you only have an average risk of getting ovarian cancer.
One of the most common screening tests for ovarian cancer is a transvaginal ultrasound, which uses sound waves to look at organs like your ovaries, fallopian tubes, and uterus. But even if a transvaginal ultrasound does pick up on an ovarian growth, that doesn’t tell you whether or not the tumor is cancerous. (As the ACS explains, most ovarian masses found by transvaginal ultrasounds are benign.)
The other common screening option is a CA-125 blood test, which measures the amount of a protein called CA-125 in your blood. Many people with ovarian cancer have elevated levels of CA-125, the ACS says. But CA-125 levels can also be high due to conditions like endometriosis and pelvic inflammatory disease, the ACS explains, noting that both are more common than ovarian cancer. Furthermore, not everyone with ovarian cancer also has high CA-125 levels, so it’s really not a sure thing. This is why doctors typically don’t recommend these screening tests for people with an average risk of ovarian cancer.
If you’re at a high risk for ovarian cancer (meaning, you have a family history of ovarian or breast cancer or you have an inherited genetic condition, like Lynch syndrome or a BRCA gene mutation), talk to your doctor about your options. They might be more inclined to have you undergo a transvaginal ultrasound or CA-125 testing, although it will likely be in conjunction with genetic screening, Dr. Chapman-Davis says.
Depending on your situation, your doctor may recommend that you consider preventive removal of your ovaries and fallopian tubes once you’re finished having any kids you may want, according to the ACS. Talking with a doctor you trust is the only way to figure out how concerned you should be about your risk of ovarian cancer and any symptoms you’re worried it may be causing.