Ovarian Cancer Symptoms and Risks
There are currently no standardized screening tests for ovarian cancer. Women who are at high risk for ovarian cancer should have regular gynecologic examinations and follow their doctor’s recommendations. This includes women who have:
- BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic mutations
- Hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome
- Hereditary Lynch syndrome
Other risk factors include:
- Never becoming pregnant or having a baby
- Starting your menstrual cycle before age 12 and going through menopause after age 50
- Using hormone replacement therapy for menopause symptoms
Ovarian cancer symptoms
In most cases, early-stage ovarian cancer has no symptoms. This means that ovarian cancer often goes undiagnosed until its later stages, when the cancer has spread. Early-stage ovarian cancer, when the cancer is still confined to the ovary, is easier to treat successfully.
Ovarian cancer is difficult to detect in the early stages partly because the ovaries are small organs located deep within the abdominal cavity on either side of the uterus. Women also often attribute symptoms to other conditions such as menstruation or menopause. The most common signs and symptoms include:
- Abdominal discomfort, bloating or pelvic pain
- Feeling the need to urinate urgently or often
- Loss of appetite, nausea, gas or feeling full quickly, even after small meals
Other signs of ovarian cancer can include:
- Back or leg pain
- Pelvic pressure
- Problems such as gas, bloating, long-term stomach pain, constipation or indigestion
- Swelling of the stomach (abdomen)
- Unusual vaginal bleeding or spotting
- Weight loss
These health changes are common and can be caused by many other conditions besides cancer. For example, ovarian cysts share many of the same symptoms as ovarian cancer. If you notice any of these signs, call your doctor or make an appointment with The University of Kansas Cancer Center.
Ovarian cancer risk factors
Any woman with ovaries is at some risk of ovarian cancer. If you have ever had breast or colon cancer, you may be at increased risk of ovarian cancer. Additional risk factors for ovarian cancer include:
Ovarian cancer occurs at higher-than-expected rates in women with endometriosis. Despite the fact that endometriosis and cancer are 2 separate diseases, there is evidence that having endometriosis increases the risk of developing cancer later in life, in particular ovarian cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, the risk of developing ovarian cancer increases with age. Ovarian cancer is rare in women younger than 40. Most ovarian cancers develop after menopause. Half of all ovarian cancers are found in women age 63 or older.
Hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome is caused by mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes and can be inherited from either parent.
Lynch syndrome is another risk factor for ovarian cancer. An inherited condition, Lynch syndrome increases the risk of colon cancer and significantly increases the risk of developing ovarian and uterine cancers. It also slightly increases the risk of breast cancer.
Women who have been pregnant and carried to term before age 26 have a lower risk of ovarian cancer than women who have not. The risk goes down with each full-term pregnancy, according to the ACS. Women who have their first full-term pregnancy after age 35 or who never carried a pregnancy to term have a higher risk of ovarian cancer. Using oral contraceptives is one way that many women can reduce their risk of developing ovarian cancer. Oral contraceptives also seem to reduce this risk for women with BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations.
Controlling weight by choosing a healthy diet and lifestyle including exercise can improve your overall health, in addition to lowering your cancer risk. Consult your physician for more information.
Women with a family history of ovarian or breast cancer, or who appear to be at high risk, should receive genetic counseling. If the risk appears to be substantial, you may be offered genetic testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2.
While you may not be able to prevent ovarian cancer, there are behaviors and treatments that lower your risk:
- Giving birth to 1 or more children
- Having your fallopian tubes tied or cut (tubal ligation)
- Removing your ovaries
- Removing your uterus
- Taking birth control pills
We provide a high-risk ovarian cancer clinic for women who carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene and are at high risk for breast cancer. In the clinic, our gynecologic oncologists work with you to ensure you never develop ovarian cancer. We advise women at high risk to have their ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to prevent them from ever having cancer.
Additionally, we closely monitor all patients every 6 months and perform bloodwork (cancer antigen or CA-125 blood test). Many women with ovarian cancer have elevated levels of CA-125, a protein in the blood. If cancer is detected, we can catch it early when it is most treatable.