Ovarian cancer is thankfully very rare; it makes up only around 3% of cancers in women, but just like with all conditions, having an awareness of the signs and symptoms can be life saving. We’re not about scaremongering here at Yoppie, but we are about supporting female health: the good, the bad and the dangerous. So, we’re breaking down what’s useful to know about ovarian cancer so you’re always aware of what to watch out for.
What causes ovarian cancer?
Ovarian cancer can take one of over 30 different forms, and most are caused when tumors develop in the:
- Epithelial cells - found on the outer layer of the ovary
- Germ cells - the ones that form eggs
- Stromal cells - the ones that produce and release hormones
In the case of epithelial ovarian tumors, these are usually benign, but the ones that are cancerous account for 85-90% of all ovarian cancers. Cancerous tumors appear in the germ cells in less than 2% of cases, and these are usually in teens and women in their 20s. Lastly, cancerous tumours that appear in stromal cells make up only 1% of all cases. There are other types of ovarian cancers, but the three mentioned here are most common.
What are the symptoms to watch out for?
Ovarian cancer is notoriously difficult to diagnose in the early stages because the symptoms are so varied and similar to what you might experience with other conditions. According to the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition (NOCC), only around 19% of cases are diagnosed in the early stages because there often appear to be no symptoms. That’s why we’re keen to share knowledge of possible early stage symptoms. You should never automatically worry that any of the below are ovarian cancer, but they may be a reason to consult your doctor and get the tests that they recommend. Here are seven signs to keep in mind:
- A long-lasting bloated or swollen tummy
- A loss of appetite, and/or feeling full quickly after you eat
- Pain in the lower stomach or back (if you experience unexplained abdominal symptoms for more than 2 weeks you should always consult a doctor)
- Needing to urinate more frequently/urgently, and/or changes in your usual bowel habits (you may notice diarrhoea or constipation)
- Unexplained weight gain or loss
- Extreme tiredness without exertion
- Vaginal bleeding after menopause (Over 50s experiencing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome for the first time should also speak to a doctor)
As you have probably already guessed, all of the above symptoms can be attributed to a large number of other non-life threatening conditions, and are therefore likely nothing to worry about. If however, symptoms persist for a long period of time, you should always discuss them with a doctor.
Remember that while symptoms of ovarian cancer may be hard to detect in the early stages, they can come on very suddenly, so if you have any abrupt changes in your health relating to the above symptoms, don’t wait to get checked over by your doctor for peace of mind.
Here’s a great video from Target Ovarian Cancer that discusses these symptoms further.
How do they test for ovarian cancer?
The above symptoms do not guarantee that a person has ovarian cancer, and tests must be done to determine if this unlikely cause is in fact the reason. Diagnosing the condition usually requires a broad range of tests administered by a specialist doctor who will ask more information about your symptoms, such as; when they began, how often they occur, how they have responded to basic treatment, your medical history, your family history of cancer, and more.
The doctor will usually do a pelvic exam to feel for any inflammation or enlargement of the ovaries. He/she is also looking for any possible fluid in the abdomen. If ovarian cancer is at all a possibility, the doctor will advise further tests such as blood tests, scans of the pelvic area, and if necessary, biopsies of any suspicious areas, or a laparoscopic investigation.
As always, it’s important not to panic about suspicious symptoms that could just as easily be a tummy ache! Knowing the symptoms of potentially dangerous female health conditions isn’t about causing paranoia and unnecessary worry, it’s about awareness of changes in your body, and understanding how to broach sensitive topics with your doctor. Stay vigilant when it comes to your health.
Got questions about ovarian cancer symptoms? We’ll always try to answer your queries, but if we can’t, we’ll point you in the right direction. Let us know what’s on your mind over on our facebook group FEM LIFE!