Don't Ignore the Early Signs of Ovarian Cancer

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Woman in doctor's office for check up

You may have heard that ovarian cancer is sometimes called “the silent killer.” This is because it often has no signs or symptoms until it is at an advanced stage. Experts are looking for new ways to help find ovarian cancer earlier. Until they do, here are a few steps you can take to help your doctor detect it as soon as possible.  
  

1. Have Regular Exams

There is no screening test for ovarian cancer. During a routine pelvic exam, your doctor will check the size and shape of your ovaries and may be able to find problems or changes. Having regular exams is also a good way to find other conditions and to talk about any unusual symptoms you may have. 

2. Know the Early Warning Signs

Sometimes women have early warning signs of ovarian cancer. These can include:

  • Abnormal bleeding or discharge from the vagina
  • Back pain
  • Constipation or diarrhea 
  • Feeling full quickly when eating
  • Needing to urinate more often or more urgently
  • Pain or pressure in the stomach area
  • Swelling or bloating in the stomach area

It’s important to know that most of these symptoms can also be caused by other conditions that are not cancer. If any of these symptoms are new for you, or you have them for more than a few weeks, talk with your doctor. 

3. Understand Your Risks

There are certain things that can affect your risk for ovarian cancer. While you may not be able to change many of these risks, it’s good to know about them. 

You may have a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer if you:

  • Are 5 feet 8 inches or taller. Greater height carries a slightly increased risk of ovarian cancer.
  • Are obese
  • Have a mother or sister with ovarian cancer or two or more relatives who have had ovarian cancer
  • Have inherited genes that put you at risk, such as the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes
  • Have used estrogen-only hormone replacement therapy after menopause
  • Have used fertility drugs
  • Have used talcum powder around your vaginal area

Your risk of ovarian cancer may be lower if you have:

  • Been pregnant
  • Breast-fed a baby
  • Had surgery to remove both ovaries, called a prophylactic oophorectomy. Some women who have a high genetic risk of ovarian cancer choose to have this surgery to prevent ovarian cancer. 
  • Had a tubal ligation or hysterectomy
  • Used oral contraceptives. The longer you used these medicines, the lower your risk of ovarian cancer.  

If you have questions about your specific risks, talk with your doctor. Come to your appointment prepared with your personal and family health history. This will help your doctor determine your personal risk of ovarian cancer.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Oct 12
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

  1. Can ovarian cancer be found early? American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/ovariancancer/detailedguide/ovarian-cancer-detection

  2. Ovarian cancer prevention. National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/prevention/ovarian/Patient/page1/AllPages.

  3. Ovarian cancer: what are the symptoms? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/ovarian/basic_info/symptoms.htm.