Ovarian cancer used to be called the “silent killer” because it was thought the symptoms of this gynecological cancer often appeared too late to begin effective treatment. However, we now know certain symptoms do occur early enough to help catch the disease when it’s easier to treat.
Symptoms of ovarian cancer include:
- Pelvic or abdominal pain (below the stomach and above the hips)
- Trouble eating
- Getting full quickly
- Urinary urgency
- Urinary frequency
While ovarian cancer may not be silent, it may be more appropriate to call it devious since these same symptoms often are caused by more common, and less lethal, conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome.
In reality, ovarian cancer is rare, accounting for about 3% of all cancers in women. Statistics published by the American Cancer Society estimate a women’s lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer is 1 in 72, and her lifetime chance of dying from it is 1 in 100. In comparison, a women’s lifetime risk of developing lung cancer is about 1 in 16 and 1 in 20 for colorectal cancer.
However, ovarian cancer is still the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in U.S. women. Women experiencing these symptoms should see their gynecologist, especially if:
- symptoms occur almost daily last for more than a few weeks and;
- feel different from “normal”—in other words, the symptoms are more frequent or severe than usual.
Other symptoms of ovarian cancer can include:
- Stomach upset
- Back pain
- Pain during intercourse
- Abdominal swelling along with weight loss
No one is truly sure what causes ovarian cancer; however, genetics and ovulation appear the biggest factors.
Ovarian cancer risk factors include:
- Age— Risk increases as women age, particularly after menopause, until about the age of 75. Ovarian cancer in women under 40 is rare.
- Reproductive history—Women who have never been pregnant, have suffered multiple miscarriages or have undergone multiple abortions appear to be at higher risk
- Family and personal history of cancer— The risk of developing the disease can be as much as 50% higher in women whose mothers or sisters have had ovarian cancer. Risk also increases in women who have been treated for breast, uterine or colorectal cancer. In fact, women in this risk group may want to consider BRCA1 and BRCA2 testing. Mutations in these genes can indicate a higher risk.
- Fertility treatments— Women who have taken fertility drugs to induce ovulation, such as clomiphene, tend to be at higher risk.
- Lifestyle—Obesity and high-fat diets have been shown to increase risk.
On the other hand, risk seems to decrease for women who have:
- Taken birth control pills
- Given birth to one or more children, with each full-term pregnancy dropping the risk by about 10%
- Breast fed
- Undergone tubal ligation or a hysterectomy