Ovarian cancer symptoms and warning signs

With around 22,440 new cases of ovarian cancer predicted for 2017, it's possible that a woman you know may receive a diagnosis. Ovarian cancer is the tenth most common cancer and the fifth-leading cause of cancer death in the U.S., but it can be treated if it's caught early, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Approximately 15 percent of ovarian cancer cases “are diagnosed at the local stage,” meaning the disease was discovered just where it began, according to the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) program with the National Cancer Institute. The 5-year survivial rate for localized ovarian cancer is 92.5 percent. 

National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month starts Sept. 1, and with early intervention playing a key role in treatment and prognosis, it’s important to know the symptoms that women can look out for.

What are some ovarian cancer symptoms?

There aren’t any specific signs of early stage ovarian cancer, Dr. Michael Worley, a surgical gynecological oncologist with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Mass., told Fox News. 

Ovarian cancer symptoms are often vague, Worley said, with one being losing or gaining weight.  

Other symptoms may include abdominal bloating; bowel changes like diarrhea or constipation; bladder changes such as an increase in frequency or urgency; abdominal discomfort and pressure; and a sense of feeling full, Dr. Jamie Bakkum-Gamez, a gynecologic oncologist with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., told Fox News.

An issue with ovarian cancer is that there is no screening test.

“Seventy-five percent of the women I care for come in at an advanced stage,” Bakkum-Gamez said, adding that “even at that stage, symptoms can be very vague.”

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What should I do if I think I have symptoms?

If symptoms persist, a woman should see a medical provider for a pelvic ultrasound, Bakkum-Gamez said, adding that women diagnosed should see a gynecologic oncologist.

Going to an OB-GYN “is a good place to start,” Worley said, explaining that an ultrasound or a CT scan may sometimes be ordered.

What should I know about risk factors?

Family history, not having children, and having endometriosis are among the risk factors for ovarian cancer, according to the CDC. Others include having the BRCA-1 or BRCA-2 gene, which are linked to ovarian and breast cancer, and being “middle-aged or older.”

Additional risk factors include being Caucasian and early onset of menses and late menopause, according to Worley.

Women with a family history of ovarian, fallopian tube cancer and breast cancer “should really be thinking about seeing a genetic counselor,” Bakkum-Gamez said. It “may lead to potential prevention.”

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What about risk reduction?

Both experts said that for women ages 35-40 with the BRCA-1 gene, it’s recommended they get their fallopian tubes tied and ovaries removed.

It’s also recommended for women with the BRCA-2 gene, with different age guidelines.

Other aspects which may reduce a woman’s risk of ovarian cancer include giving birth, having a tubal ligation, having a hysterectomy, breast-feeding and using birth control pills, Bakum-Gamez said.

Oral birth control is “by far the easiest way” to reduce risk, Worley said. The method, he explained, also “works relatively well for people with BRCA mutations,” noting there’s conflicting data about it increasing the risk of breast cancer and that these women should speak to their doctors.

Risk reduction from a hysterectomy “is a little more controversial,” he said, explaining that old data said the procedure didn’t reduce risk, while new data says it’s helpful. Just removing the uterus reduces ovarian risk, he said.

“Ovarian cancer is one of the most treatable advanced stage cancers,” Worley said, with the quality of surgery and chemotherapy playing a key role in a patient’s care.