Ovarian Cancer: Knowing Your Risks and Early Symptoms

Author: Matt Bueby

A woman’s ovaries are key to the reproductive functions of her body. They produce eggs for fertilization and the reproductive hormones estrogen and progesterone. Any medical condition that stops the ovaries from functioning properly can decrease a woman’s fertility. Unfortunately, the ovaries are also susceptible to cancer, and as Karmanos Cancer Institute at McLaren Flint gynecologic oncologist Benjamin Mize, MD, explains, it is vital to understand the risks and early symptoms of ovarian cancer.

“Ovarian cancer is not the most common cancer in women, but due to the often subtle nature of symptoms early on, it remains one of the more common cancer-related causes of death in women in the US, says Dr. Mize. “This has earned ovarian cancer the title of “silent killer” in the past. With that being said, knowing your risks and paying attention to persistent often vague symptoms may still have the ability to save your life.”

When ovarian cancer is in the early stages, there may not be specific symptoms. Women can likely understand why some of the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer can be easily missed:

  • Abdominal swelling, pain or discomfort (gas, bloating, cramps)
  • Back or leg pain that does not go away
  • Feeling tired all the time
  • Difficulty eating or feeling full after eating only a small amount
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • New urinary or bowel issues
  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge

While these signs and symptoms may not be specific, if they don’t go away after several weeks, they should be mentioned to your doctor.

Some women may be at more risk of developing ovarian cancer, such as those who:

  • Started menstruation before the age of 12
  • Started menopause after the age of 50
  • Have never had children or had their first child after the age of 30
  • Have a history of ovarian, breast, or colorectal cancer
  • Have a family history (especially mother, daughter, or sister) of ovarian, breast, or colorectal cancer. Genetic counseling and testing is available at the Karmanos Cancer Institute at McLaren Flint. Call our oncology nurse navigator at 810-342-4848 for more information.

Women who are between the age of 35 and 74 are most likely to develop ovarian cancer, though around half of those diagnosed are over the age of 63. The American Cancer Society (ACS) says a woman has a 1 in 78 chance of having ovarian cancer in her lifetime. The good news is diagnosis rates have declined over the last 20 years.

“Aside from becoming familiar with the symptoms that may be associated with cancer, the most important things you can do for yourself with respect to your risk for ovarian and other cancers is to learn your family’s history related to all cancer types and communicate that with your primary care provider or OB/GYN," said Dr. Mize. "They can then make recommendations about the appropriate screening and work up based on your personal risks.”

Dr. Mize suggests talking with your primary care provider, or obstetrician/gynecologist (OB/GYN) at least on an annual basis to stay up to date on routine screening for ovarian and other cancers of the female reproductive tract. In addition to keeping up with annual screening visits, promptly reporting any of the above-mentioned persistent symptoms to your provider may allow them the opportunity to order the appropriate workup such as ultrasound, CT scan or labs so that diagnosis and referral to a gynecologic oncologist such as Dr. Mize can be made in a timely fashion.

Schedule an appointment with your provider if you experience any of the above symptoms. If you need a primary care provider or OB/GYN, schedule an appointment online here with a McLaren Flint provider who is accepting new patients.

Visit karmanos.org/flintgynonc for more information on gynecologic cancers and their symptoms.