It’s hard to spot ovarian cancer early. The symptoms can mimic other conditions, and there’s a chance you might not have any. What’s more, doctors and gynecologists don’t have reliable screening tests to find early signs of the disease. Those are the main reasons why women get diagnosed with ovarian cancer when in it’s stage I or II, before it spreads much, only about 20% of the time.
But you can do things to take charge of your health. Learn which symptoms to be aware of, so you can have your doctor or gynecologist check them. And find out what things put women at high risk for the disease, so you can get preventive treatments if necessary. Here’s what two doctors who treat gynecologic cancers want you to know about spotting ovarian cancer as early as possible.
Speak Up if You Have Symptoms
Sometimes ovarian cancer doesn’t cause any symptoms early on, especially during the first stage of the disease. That’s when the cancer is limited to one or both of your ovaries, which store eggs and make the female hormones estrogen and progesterone.
“There’s a lot of room in the abdomen for the ovary to grow” when a cancerous tumor forms on it, says Leslie Boyd, MD, director of NYU Langone’s Division of Gynecologic Oncology. “So usually stage I ovarian cancer is a fairly silent disease.”
Katherine Kurnit, MD, a gynecologic oncologist at the University of Chicago, agrees. In general, she says, women start getting symptoms when the cancer begins to spread, pushing on other structures or invading other parts of the body.
It’s possible to get symptoms in the early stages of the disease, though. Some of them are:
- Pain in your belly or pelvis
- Feeling full quickly when you eat
- An urgent or frequent need to pee
Talk to your primary care doctor or your gynecologist if you have symptoms like these, especially if they’re new for you and they don’t go away, Kurnit says. Since ovarian cancer can bring on non-specific problems like gastrointestinal or bowel problems, be aware that it commonly gets misdiagnosed as a gastrointestinal or bowel problems, Kurnit and Boyd say.
If you get treatment for one of those conditions and your symptoms stick around for 2 or more weeks, follow up with another doctor or your gynecologist. A pelvic ultrasound is a fast test that can give your gynecologist a lot of information about what’s going on with you, Boyd says.
Learn What Could Put You at High Risk
A number of things increase your odds of getting ovarian cancer, like growing older. The disease is rare when you’re younger than 40. It’s much more common when you’re 63 or older. Most of the time it starts after menopause.
Boyd and Kurnit say two key things put you at high risk of getting the disease, though: your close family’s medical history and certain gene changes, or “mutations.”
If you have a first-degree relative like a sister or mother who’s had ovarian cancer, your chances of getting