Women: Education and Screening is Vital to Catch Ovarian Cancer Early

Why some signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer may go unnoticed

Author: Jasmine Brown

“It’s a disease that gets the name ‘silent killer’ because symptoms can be difficult to recognize.”

A woman’s ovaries are key to the reproductive functions of the body. They produce eggs for fertilization and the reproductive hormones estrogen and progesterone. Any medical conditions that stop the ovaries from functioning properly can decrease a woman’s fertility. Unfortunately, the ovaries are also susceptible to cancer.

“Ovarian cancer begins in the ovaries, but it can also begin developing in the fallopian tubes where the eggs travel to the uterus.” explained Robert Morris, MD, gynecologic oncologist at Karmanos Cancer Institute at McLaren Flint. “It’s a disease that gets the name ‘silent killer’ because symptoms can be difficult to recognize.”

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 or discomfort (gas, bloating, cramps), or pain that does not go away
  • 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
  • Urinary issues
  • Irregular vaginal bleeding, including between periods, after sex, and after menopause

Some women may be more at 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 Karmanos in 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.

“More and more women are receiving their annual Pap tests. Some are even at the age where they are receiving regular pelvic and rectal exams, so physicians are catching suspicious masses sooner, even before they may develop as cancerous,” said Dr. Morris. “It’s important to know if you are at risk, and even more important to go to your annual appointments and receive screenings.”

Dr. Morris suggests talking with your primary care provider, or obstetrics and gynecologist (OB/GYN) to understand your reproductive health. In addition to Pap tests and pelvic exams, physicians have other tools that can alert them of ovary issues in women or help them investigate suspicious masses further. For example, some women may receive blood tests, which measure the protein levels in the blood, or have a transvaginal ultrasound, which can be helpful in finding cancer early by keeping an eye out for masses.

Ovarian cancer has led to more deaths among women than any other cancer of the female reproductive system. With screening, physicians can catch issues within the ovaries sooner and get women to the specialty treatment that is right for them, whether benign or malignant. Often, this means referring women to a gynecologic oncologist, like Dr. Morris.

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 within 2-4 weeks, or less.

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