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Ovarian Cancer: Possible Early Warning Signs to Know


Ovarian cancer affects one in 70 women, and when it strikes, it is often deadly. The reputation of ovarian cancer as a silent killer is still true, yet there are some signs and symptoms women should know that can help with early detection.

No reliable screening test for ovarian cancer exists

We can screen for breast cancer with mammograms, for colon cancer with colonoscopy, and for prostate cancer with a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test, yet there are no reliable screening tests for ovarian cancer. Ovarian cancer is relatively uncommon but often deadly: the National Cancer Institute estimates there will be 21,990 new cases of the disease in the United States in 2011, with 15,460 deaths.

To improve the five-year survival odds from 30 percent to more than 90 percent, it is critical to identify ovarian cancer early. But because the symptoms often mimic less serious conditions, women often ignore them.

According to Diljeet Singh, MD, gynecological oncologist and co-director of the Ovarian Cancer Early Detection and Prevention program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, women should pay attention to possible early warning signs, including:

  • Abdominal or pelvic pain
  • Bloating
  • Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
  • Increase in abdominal size (pants and skirts tighter around the waist)
  • Urinary tract symptoms (urgency or going more frequently)

Women who experience a combination of these symptoms almost every day for two to three weeks should see their doctor.

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Ovarian cancer is not only hard to detect early, its causes are also not known. However, some risk factors include having a personal history of breast cancer, a family history of ovarian cancer, age of 45 or older, obesity, and carrying a mutation of the BRCA gene (a breast cancer gene).

Experts recommend women who are at high risk for ovarian cancer be screened beginning at age 20 to 25, or five to 10 years sooner than the youngest age of someone who was diagnosed with the disease in the family. For now, screening consists of a physical examination, ultrasound, and blood tests.

Genetic tests can be taken by women who are especially at increased risk, including those with BRCA gene mutations or who have an extensive family history of ovarian or breast cancer. Doctors may recommend high-risk women have their ovaries and fallopian tubes removed, which reduces the risk of ovarian cancer by more than 95 percent.

Thus far, research indicates two ways women may reduce their risk of ovarian cancer. Women who use birth control pills for at least five years are three times less likely to develop the cancer, and tubal ligation can lower the risk by 50 percent.

Until there are reliable ways to screen for early ovarian cancer and experts know the causes of the disease, women should know the possible early warning signs and see their doctor if they persist. In addition, Singh advised “eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, getting regular exercise, maintaining a normal body weight and managing stresses are all ways women can help decrease their risk of ovarian cancer.”

National Cancer Institute
Northwest Memorial Hospital