Ovarian cancer symptoms you're likely to miss

Chances are you or someone you know has been touched by cancer. The news of cancer is devstating for a family and community. There is so much uncertainty for the future, and this is certainly true of ovarian cancer. Unfortunately ovarian cancer can often be missed in its early stages, because the symptoms are easy to ignore.

"Many women are diligent about eating right, exercising regularly and getting their annual check-ups, which includes screenings for cervical cancer (Pap test) and breast cancer (mammograms)," Dr. Kelly Manahan, a gynecologic oncologist with Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) at Southeastern Regional Medical Center, told The Marietta Daily Journal. "But there is one cancer that is silently killing women for which there is no screening, and many women are unaware of the symptoms; ovarian cancer." Fortunately, there is now more research coming out to guide us on the signs to watch out for.

Why these symptoms are easy to miss

Simply put, ovarian cancer is easy to miss, because the symptoms don't seem like a big deal. Because we probably wouldn't notice these quiet symptoms, ovarian cancer is often not caught until the later stages when it is more difficult to treat.

"Ovarian cancer is often called the silent killer because its symptoms are easy to overlook or attribute to simply 'growing old' in perimenopausal and menopausal women," Dr. Manahan told The Marietta Daily Journal. "Symptoms, such as persistent bloating, abdominal pain, acid reflux or heartburn, and a change in urinary frequency, sometimes result in tests for unrelated issues, including irritable bowel syndrome or gallbladder disease, thus delaying treatment for the actual cancer."

The ovaries are only about the size of almonds and are located pretty deep into your abdomens. This makes their symptoms difficult — but not impossible — to catch.

Why it's important to catch it early

Ovarian cancer has been referred to as a silent killer, but the medical community is now rejecting that title. While the symptoms may not be as easy to catch as we'd like, the fact is that all women experience some kind of change in their bodies early on in the cancer. Noticing these changes and reporting them to your doctor is vital for your treatment.

Only about 20 percent of ovarian cancer cases are caught in the early stages, but those women end up faring much better. Of the women who were diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the early stages, 94 percent of them lived five years past diagnosis.

Running to the bathroom

If you take a trip back to sophomore year biology class, you'll remember that the ovaries are located close to the bladder and intestines. That means that ovarian cancer can affect your bathroom trips. Some common symptoms of ovarian cancer include needing to urinate more frequently, and changes in your bowel movements. If you notice that you're suddenly always feeling the urge to go, talk with your doctor.

Persistent bloating

You're probably used to noticing a little (or a lot) of bloating before and around your period. However, if that bloating never goes away, it should be checked out.

A study in the scientific journal BJOG reported the importance of catching ovarian cancer symptoms right away. Researchers interviewed women diagnosed with ovarian cancer about the changes they had noticed leading up to diagnosis. One of the most common was persistent abdominal bloating. One study participant described it as very noticeable.

"I'm a size 14, and I went and bought a size 20 skirt last week, and it's not big enough. I put it on but I could only stand it for half an hour. Even my knickers are leaving a big red line all round me," she described. "It is so — you've no idea how uncomfortable it is — it's just so up, you feel like you want to stick a pin in it and let loads of air out, you know…really bloat-y."

Pelvic pain

Holistic Physician Dr. Svetlana Kogan told me that any woman with new onset pelvic pain should be checked for ovarian cancer. Many women experience pain when ovarian cysts, small fluid-filled sacs in the ovaries, form, and they are sometimes serious. An ovarian cyst can be completely benign and even develop every time you have your period, or it could be cancerous.

Most women in their childbearing years have benign ones, but as we age, we're more at risk. If you've noticed any kind of new pelvic pain, make sure to discuss it with your doctor.

Nagging pain

A study in the journal Cancer found that persistent pain was one of the most common symptoms of ovarian cancer. Study participants were asked about their symptoms before and after the diagnosis of ovarian cancer. Of the 151 women surveyed, 68 percent reported that the pain was significant enough to interfere with their everyday activities.

Over 60 percent of the participants stated that their pain affected their moods, ability to work, and even their overall enjoyment of life. Women who notice constant pelvic or back pain should talk with their doctors about what could be causing it.

Unexplained weight gain

Sudden weight gain is one of the lesser known symptoms of ovarian cancer. It's also harder to notice, as many of us have fluctuating weights throughout the months, or years. Premenopausal women may also notice that their abdomens seem bigger or wider.

Paula Benson, director of Ovarian Cancer Australia, experienced weight gain and a protruding abdomen before being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. "I had this little tummy, and when I'd try to pull it in it just wouldn't go in," she told The Sydney Morning Herald. "Then when I put on a dress I hadn't worn for a while, it wouldn't fit."

Painful intercourse

Noticing a new pain during sex can be a symptom of ovarian cancer. You may notice a deeper pain in your abdomen which may worsen, depending on your position. If you've noticed a new pain, pay attention to exactly where it is and what it feels like. Your doctor will ask you if the pain happens every time you have sex and what makes it worse.

Feeling full quickly

Having trouble eating or feeling full as soon as you start eating is a sign of ovarian cancer. If you've been noticing this, start paying attention to how often it happens. According to the American Cancer Society, if it occurs more than 12 times per month, talk to your doctor.

According to a study in Obstetrics and Gynecology, over 70 percent of women with ovarian cancer surveyed, reported a constant feeling of fullness before becoming diagnosed.

Fatigue

This is a tricky one to notice. Most of us have way too much on our plates and almost always feel tired. It's not unusual for me to catch myself yawning all day long. With two little kids and a business, who wouldn't feel tired most of the time? The trick is to notice if there has been a difference.

Say you go from your "normal" tired, to hardly being able to keep your eyes open during the day. If this intense fatigue doesn't let up throughout the month, it's best to talk with your doctor.

Get screened for other cancers

Because there is no screening tool for ovarian cancer, it's important to regularly follow-up with your doctor and always mention any new symptoms, even if they seem like nothing. Dr. Manahan recommends having regular pap tests to detect cervical cancer early. Once detected early, it can be treated before it spreads to the ovaries.

"Cervical cancer is easily the most preventable and treatable form of cancer in women," Dr. Manahan told The Marietta Daily Journal. "If all women over 21 years of age received a routine Pap test based on their doctor's recommendation, there would a 90 percent reduction in cervical cancer according to the U.S. Preventive Service Task Force." Dr. Manahan also recommends regular rectal exams and talking with you doctor if you notice any new bloating.

Don't ignore the changes

Because the early symptoms of ovarian cancer can feel like no big deal, it's easy to keep going about your day. We're all busy and don't have time to run to the doctor for every little ache and pain. However, treating ovarian cancer early is crucial, and seeing your doctor is the first step.

If you notice any changes in your body from how you normally feel, pay attention to them. If you have been feeling more tired, or are experiencing a dull ache for a month, see your doctor. Maybe it's nothing, or maybe you're catching something early. Either way, you'll be glad you went.

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