Every year, roughly 21,000 people in the United States and 295,000 people worldwide are diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It’s the eighth-most common cancer for women globally, making up just under 4 percent of all cancer cases diagnosed in 2018.
When diagnosed in the early stages, the chances of survival for ovarian cancer are incredibly high; it’s estimated that the five-year survival rate for women diagnosed with stage one ovarian cancer is an incredible 92 percent.
Unfortunately, fewer than 15 percent of ovarian cancer diagnoses come in the early stages. The lack of clear-cut symptoms, absence of mass and widespread awareness, and misleading advice regarding early symptoms mean that most cases aren’t diagnosed until the cancer has advanced to the incredibly hard-to-treat late stages.
Despite the fact that ovarian cancer is only detected at a rate of 11 cases per 100,000 women in the United States, less frequent than seven other forms of cancer, it’s the fifth-leading cause of death by cancer among women fighting the disease. Between 2003 and 2007, it was the ninth-deadliest form of cancer across the board in the United States, taking nearly 74,000 lives during that span and projecting to cause 14,000 fatalities each year. That means that for every three women diagnosed each year, two women will die from the disease.
It can be incredibly tough to recognize the early symptoms of ovarian cancer, especially for women who are used to putting aches and pains aside to focus on things like families, careers, and households. But knowing these five symptoms can be incredibly important—and can help women know when to give their doctor a quick call for a cancer screening.
The majority of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer are over 60, have a BMI higher than 30, or have a family history; there’s a genetic component to risk for the disease, and age is believed to play a key role as well. But while doctors have confirmed that pregnancy, breastfeeding, and the use of oral contraceptives all lower the risk of ovarian cancer, it’s important to learn how to identify when a problem might have arisen. If you notice any of these symptoms, particularly if they seem to linger, make sure to let your doctor know as soon as possible; with the success of early treatment, it’s too important to ignore.
1. Decrease in Appetite
Many women are quick to dismiss the idea that eating less isn’t always a good thing, but it’s incredibly important to keep an eye on more than just your portion control. If you find yourself picking up the same meal you once enjoyed and feeling full before it’s over, that could be a sign of something more serious than just a change in tastes.
This symptom tends to accompany either bloating or weight loss, as it typically causes a decrease in overall food consumption; it can cause women to feel full even in between meals and reduce desire to eat over a prolonged period.
Decrease in appetite can accompany a whole host of medical issues, so it doesn’t always exclusively indicate ovarian cancer. It can mean gastrointestinal issues, depression, hormonal imbalance, or even imbalanced nutrition. But if it lasts more than a few weeks, a doctor should be alerted; it can cause nutritional deficiency and fatigue even if a doctor’s visit rules out the presence of cancer.
2. Pain During Intercourse
There are dozens of reasons that intercourse can feel painful, especially following menopause—which makes this a particularly difficult symptom to pin down for the majority of women who develop ovarian cancer.
This can also be a sign of ovarian cancer, though, so it’s important never to just chalk up pain during intercourse to aging or stress; it tends to be a later-stage symptom but can help early detection in plenty of cases as well.
It’s not just ovarian cancer that can be detected by letting your doc know that this is a problem, too. Ovarian cysts can be identified in this manner as well, and ultimately rooting out the problem can help couples avoid catastrophic strain on their relationships early on.
3. Constipation or Bloating
Nothing is worse than glancing in the mirror and seeing a distended abdomen during that time of the month. It’s one of the most common symptoms of menstruation for women and can range in severity even from month to month for the same woman.
There’s a difference between the bloating—and even constipation—that accompanies menstrual cycles, though, and the level of bloating that can indicate ovarian cancer. It’s never normal for bloating to stick around for longer than a few days, and if that uncomfortable feeling lasts a few weeks, it’s time to schedule a visit to the OB-gyn.
The same goes for constipation, which many women chalk up to hormonal issues or dietary problems. It’s fairly typical to have trouble with bowel movements during menstruation, when eating poorly, or if you’ve become particularly dehydrated. But if the problem doesn’t go away, and neither dietary nor medical intervention seem to be helping, that can be a sign that something else is amiss.
“Pay attention to any changes in your bowel habits,” says Amina Ahmed, a gynecologic oncologist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois. “Specifically, new constipation that is not relieved by any interventions can be a sign.”
4. Increased Urination
If you feel a sudden, urgent need to urinate or pressure in your bladder, it can be easy to brush it off as a urinary tract infection. And for many women, urinary incontinence or increased frequency can feel like nothing more than a byproduct of having children—so far too many women think there’s nothing wrong when they find themselves running to the restroom more often than normal.
While over half of all adult women will have at least one UTI in their lifetime, though, it’s important to know your body—and if it seems like this is a sudden change that doesn’t go away on its own after a few days, let a doctor know.
A UTI usually needs medical attention as well, so the best case is that you’ll see your doc and get a quick oral antibiotic to get back to normal quickly. If it’s not actually a urinary tract issue, though, you can help your doctor diagnose ovarian cancer early by helping them track symptoms from the start.
Make sure to stay persistent, as well. If a doctor is quick to dismiss concerns, especially if urinary issues seem to come with other symptoms or pelvic pain, continue to track your symptoms and make sure to find a medical provider who will listen to your concerns.
5. Rapid Weight Loss
Even if you feel like jumping for joy at numbers falling off the scale, it’s important to remember that unexplained weight loss is always a reason to give your doctor a call. If you notice that your pants are getting baggier and you haven’t changed your diet or exercise habits, make sure to let someone know—especially if that weight loss has come along with any of the other mentioned symptoms.
It can be tough for some women to identify this on their own, particularly if it accompanies high levels of stress. If you have a child or a particularly demanding job, weight loss—especially when it comes with feeling of fatigue or a decreased appetite—can be chalked up to stress or anxiety.
Even if that’s all it turns out to be, though, it’s worth letting a doctor know. Identifying whether it’s a medical condition or anxiety causing weight loss can help you manage your symptoms, and can ultimately lead to a healthier you even if the weight loss is caused by something more minor than ovarian cancer.