Four things women should know about ovarian cancer

ByMD ANDERSON CANCER CENTER

Feeling bloated, full or constipated? These can all be signs that your dinner didn’t agree with you. Or, they could be symptoms of something more serious, such as ovarian cancer. 

Before panic sets in, take a deep breath. Experts at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center have outlined four things every woman needs to know about ovarian cancer symptoms to help distinguish between a simple case of indigestion and something that requires a visit to a specialist.

  1. Pay attention to symptoms that may seem minor 

According to Pamela Soliman, M.D., associate professor in Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine at MD Anderson, symptoms of ovarian cancer can be vague, but that doesn’t mean you should dismiss them. 

“If something lasts for weeks and won’t go away – even with medication – the first thing you need to do is let your doctor know,” Soliman says.

Ovarian cancer has many symptoms, but three of the most common are:

  • Bloating: If bloating seems constant, doesn’t come and go, and can’t be explained by occasionally eating gas-producing foods, take note. Your face may also appear thinner while your abdomen grows larger because tumors metabolize some of the nutrients you ingest.
  • Abdominal discomfort: This may feel like acid reflux, a constant pain or a dull ache. Some women report feeling pelvic pressure, which causes more-frequent urination.
  • A feeling of fullness: Your clothes are feeling tight and you’re gaining weight, but you can’t eat as much anymore. You may also be constipated.

Pay attention to how long you experience these symptoms to determine whether they warrant a visit to the doctor. That’s true whether you feel bloated all the time, have a constant sense of pressure in your pelvis, or just notice that clothes feel tighter even though you can’t eat as much.

  • Your risk increases with age

As your age increases, so does the risk of ovarian cancer. About half of ovarian cancers occur in women over 60, especially those who are post-menopausal. 

According to Soliman, the average age at the time of ovarian cancer diagnosis is between 50 and 60, so the normal hormonal fluctuations that can cause these symptoms in menstruating women are often no longer a factor. 

If you are post-menopausal, it’s important to tell your doctor if you’re suddenly experiencing symptoms traditionally associated with menstruation, such as bloating, constipation or weight gain.

  • Ask for a diagnostic imaging scan

If you are experiencing constant abdominal pain or pelvic discomfort, ask your doctor for a CT scan or another type of diagnostic imaging study to determine the cause.

“Pelvic pain will generally get you a pelvic ultrasound, while pain in your upper abdomen will get you some kind of GI workup,” says Soliman. “This is to rule out gallstones and acid reflux.”

  • Be your own advocate

If you suspect you might have ovarian cancer, the most important thing to do is to be proactive about addressing the symptoms with your doctor, getting tested for risk factors, like the BRCA gene mutations, or finding out if there’s a history of ovarian cancer in your family. Any information you can provide to your physician will help ensure a more personalized recommendation on what to do next.

 “Ovarian cancer symptoms are notoriously vague, but you know your own body best.” 

Soliman says that being persistent about advocating for yourself will help get your questions answered and symptoms assessed. 

Learn more about ovarian cancer symptoms and treatment, as well as other cancers that affect women, at mdanderson.org.