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Sharp Health News

How to identify possible signs of ovarian cancer

Sept. 30, 2022

Woman experiencing abdominal pain

Ovaries are part of the female reproductive system and are located on either side of the uterus. They are where female hormones are made and eggs for reproduction are formed, stored and released each month.

People with ovaries may experience pain or discomfort in their ovaries for a variety of reasons. Ovarian cancer is one of them.

Dr. Marilyn Norton, a hematologist/oncologist affiliated with Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center, says it’s important to talk with your doctor if you are feeling any pain or discomfort, which can be caused by:

  • Endometriosis, when tissue similar to the lining inside of the uterus grows outside the uterus
  • Ovarian cyst
  • Ovarian tumors, either noncancerous (benign) or cancerous
  • Ovulation, when mature eggs are released from the uterus
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease, an infection of the female reproductive organs

“These symptoms should never be ignored since they could be indicators of something more serious,” says Dr. Norton. “It’s better to meet with your physician early to rule out any possible concerns.”

Signs of ovarian cancer
According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), ovarian cancer is the leading cause of death over any other cancer of the female reproductive system. ACS research shows that close to 20,000 women will receive a new diagnosis of ovarian cancer in the U.S. in 2022, though many will go undetected for too long because symptoms may be hard to spot.

A 2022 study showed 70% of patients with high-risk, early-stage ovarian cancer had one or more silent symptoms, such as:

  • Abdominal, pelvic and back pain or pressure
  • Bloating
  • Vaginal bleeding, especially post-menopause
  • Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
  • Changes in bathroom habits, such as needing to urinate more frequently or urgently, and constipation

“It is important for everyone to know what is normal for their body,” says Dr. Norton. “That way, if there are any changes, they can be identified right away. The signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer are often considered silent — in that they are easily missed or ignored, because they can be confused with symptoms that are similar to other conditions, such as aging or gastrointestinal-related conditions.”

Diagnosing gynecological conditions
Pelvic exams can help find cervical cancer and other gynecological conditions. Finding any type of cancer early may improve a person’s survival rate, require less aggressive treatment and improve overall quality of life.

Although a pelvic exam cannot typically detect ovarian cancer, there are certain diagnostic tests, such as transvaginal ultrasound — where the ultrasound probe is placed inside the vagina — and a blood test, that may help detect ovarian cancer when symptoms are present. Talk with your doctor about diagnostic tests if you have silent — or not so silent — symptoms or risk factors for ovarian cancer.

Risk factors for ovarian cancer include:

  • Previously having breast cancer
  • Age (63 years or older)
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Having children after age 35 or never carrying a child to term
  • Hormone therapy
  • Family history of ovarian, breast or colorectal cancer
  • Genetic predisposition

“Diagnostic tests can help detect ovarian cancer,” says Dr. Norton. "Ovarian cancer cannot be prevented, but living a healthy lifestyle is one way to reduce your risk. Talk to your doctor if you have risk factors to learn more about diagnosis and treatment options.”

Learn more about cancer care diagnosis and treatment at Sharp HealthCare.

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