Estimates suggest over 21,000 new cases of ovarian cancer were diagnosed in 2021. It ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women, and it is responsible for the most deaths of any form of gynecological cancer.
Thanks to the progress of new treatments and medicine, ovarian cancer is largely treatable in its early diagnosis stage. When diagnosed and treated early, the five-year survival rate is well over 90 percent. However, actually catching cancer early can be difficult, as ovarian cancer symptoms can be easy to miss or mistaken for other common disorders. Learn more about what the early warning signs of ovarian cancer are below.
What is Ovarian Cancer?
Ovarian cancer refers to any cancer that originates in the cells of the ovaries. The ovaries are part of the female reproductive system. They comprise two small, almond-shaped organs located on each side of the uterus. The ovaries are responsible for producing eggs and synthesizing the hormones estrogen and progesterone. Eggs travel through the fallopian tubes and into the uterus. If that egg becomes fertilized, it settles into the uterus and eventually develops into a fetus.
The ovaries primarily comprise three types of cells, each of which can potentially become cancerous.
- Epithelial cells make up the outer surface of the ovaries. The vast majority of ovarian cancer cases are epithelial tumors, comprising about 85 to 90 percent of cases.
- Stromal cells make up the general structure of the ovaries that hold them together. These cells are also responsible for producing estrogen and progesterone. However, only about 1 percent of ovarian cancer cases involve stromal cells.
- Germ cells are the cells that produce the egg (or ova). Germ cell tumors comprise less than 2 percent of ovarian cancer cases.
An ovarian tumor can be either benign or malignant. Benign tumors don’t grow or spread beyond the ovaries and typically do not present any serious health problems. Malignant tumors will grow and spread to other parts of the body, resulting in severe health issues and potential death.
What Are the Signs of Ovarian Cancer?
Ovarian cancer symptoms can vary on a case-by-case basis. Signs are more likely to show up when the disease has spread, but ovarian cancer can present with some symptoms even in its early stages.
The most common symptoms of ovarian cancer include:
- Abdominal bloating
- Feeling full quickly, trouble eating, or other appetite issues
- Discomfort in the pelvis
- Urinary symptoms (needing to pee more often or greater urgency)
Other symptoms include:
- General fatigue
- Pain during sex
- Back pain
- Changes in bowel habits, like constipation
- Changes in your period, including spotting, irregular bleeding, or heavier bleeding
- Weight loss with abdominal swelling
As you can imagine, many of these symptoms can be caused by non-cancerous diseases or even cancers affecting other organs. Furthermore, early-stage ovarian cancer rarely causes noticeable signs or symptoms. Only about 20 percent of cancers are found in an early stage.
Finding Ovarian Cancer Early
Going off of symptoms alone is extremely difficult for many reasons. By the time symptoms do show up, the cancer has likely spread to other organs, and some types of ovarian cancer may spread faster than others.
As soon as you experience any symptoms, it’s important to consult your doctor to make sure. It could be ovarian cancer or an ovarian cyst, or it could be something completely harmless. The only way to know for sure is to get a professional diagnosis. The sooner you get diagnosed, the sooner you can receive ovarian cancer treatment.
Regular Women’s Health Exams
Regular pelvic exams can potentially catch early stage ovarian cancer. During these exams, your doctor determines the size, shape, and consistency of your ovaries and uterus. This can help to find some cancers at an early stage. However, ovarian tumors can be difficult to feel, and Pap tests (designed mainly for cervical cancers) and HPV tests are not as effective in detecting ovarian cancer.
Still, women’s health exams can detect any abnormalities or issues that may point to ovarian cancer. While there are no set guidelines, most experts recommend one pelvic exam per year.
Screening Tests for Ovarian Cancer
Currently, there is no reliable way to screen for ovarian cancer, though many doctors use transvaginal ultrasound and CA 125 blood tests, usually in combination with pelvic exams, to screen for ovarian cancer.
A transvaginal ultrasound uses soundwaves to essentially create an image of your uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries. This can help to detect any masses in the ovaries, but an ultrasound can’t determine if a mass is cancerous or benign. Most masses found with ultrasound tests are benign.
The CA 125 blood test measures the levels of a protein called cancer antigen (CA) 125 in your blood. Many, but not all, people with ovarian cancer have high levels of CA 125. The test can provide hints for your diagnosis and guide existing treatment. However, on their own, CA 125 tests are not useful for screening ovarian cancer. The main reason for this is that there are numerous other non-cancerous conditions that can potentially result in high CA 125 levels, including:
- Pelvic inflammatory disease
- Uterine fibroids
- Liver cirrhosis
In some people, even normal menstruation cycles may contribute to high CA 125 levels. Furthermore, people who actually have ovarian cancer never show elevated CA 125 levels. If you are at an average risk of ovarian cancer and show abnormal CA 125 readings, your doctor will likely repeat the test or consider a transvaginal ultrasound for further evaluation.
Researchers are currently looking into other, more reliable methods of screening for ovarian cancer.
Risk Factors for Ovarian Cancer
If you have certain factors that increase your risk of ovarian cancer, you should be even more prompt about consulting your doctor and getting tested. Some risk factors for ovarian cancer include:
- Age – Ovarian cancer typically occurs after menopause, with half of the cases occurring after the age of 63. Ovarian cancer before the age of 40 is extremely uncommon.
- Hormone therapy – While hormone therapy is a useful treatment, taking hormone therapy after menopause may have an increased risk of ovarian cancer.
- Family history – If members of your immediate family have a history of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, or colorectal cancer, you may also have an increased risk of ovarian cancer.
- Fertility treatment – Fertility treatments associated with IVF may increase your risk of borderline or low malignant potential ovarian tumors. Studies on this are contradicting, so talk to your doctor about the potential risks of using fertility medication.
It’s important to note that some people with ovarian cancer will have none of these risk factors, while other people who have many of these risk factors may never develop ovarian cancer.
Catching ovarian cancer early can lead to a positive prognosis, but going off just signs and symptoms can prove difficult. If you experience ongoing health issues that seem to occur more than 12 times per month, consult your doctor to get to the root of the problem.
At Immunity Therapy Center, our goal is to provide objective, updated, and research-based information on all health-related topics. This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by Dr. Carlos Bautista, a Board Certified Medical Doctor at Immunity Therapy Center. All information published on the site must undergo an extensive review process to ensure accuracy. This article contains trusted sources with all references hyperlinked for the reader's visibility.