The American Cancer Society ranks ovarian cancer as the fifth leading cause of cancer-related death among women.
Nonetheless, like any other form of cancer, ovarian cancer can be treated if detected early.
However, this is where the trouble often lies since symptoms of this cancer are often vague during its onset. They mimic other reproductive conditions or appear to be mild.
The most prominent early signs for ovarian cancer you should watch out for are sudden weight loss, pelvic discomfort, frequent urination, irregular menstrual cycle, painful intercourse, fatigue, changes in bowel habits, bloating, and feeling full quicker.
While these symptoms seem tolerable, associating them with ovarian cancer onset can help diagnose the fatal condition early. Even if it doesn’t turn out to be cancer, they still suggest a critical health issue.
What Is Ovarian Cancer?
Ovarian cancer occurs when abnormal or mutated cells quickly grow in the ovaries. These cancerous cells eventually take over healthy cells, destroying them as cancer disrupts ovarian functions such as releasing hormones and egg cell production.
During the later stage, the ovarian cancer cells spread to the lymph nodes and other organs, making the condition severe and life-threatening.
Women often have a hard time identifying symptoms of ovarian cancer since they are similar to other conditions. For example, bloating, fatigue, and pelvic pain often occur within the menstrual cycle.
Likewise, these symptoms are also associated with perimenopause and menopause. However, since the risk of ovarian cancer increases with age, some women tend to brush off the signs as part of their transition.
9 Early Signs of Ovarian Cancer
Detecting ovarian cancer requires recognizing early warning signs that will prompt you to see your doctor. Regardless of how mild or common these symptoms are, especially for conditions typical during the menstrual cycle, it’s imperative not to ignore them.
Here are symptoms of ovarian cancer you should be aware of:
Cancer cells in the ovary often affect blood circulation. As a result, you may feel exhausted all the time.
Likewise, when tissue damage is detected, the body often employs a mechanism wherein energy is reduced. Although this may seem broad, if fatigue comes with other symptoms, it increases the possibility of ovarian cancer.
The ovaries release and regulate estrogen and progesterone. Therefore, any abnormality in their production influenced by ovarian cancer can lead to the gastrointestinal tract being filled with air. As a result, affected women experience consistent bloating.
- Pelvic discomfort
Since the ovaries are located in the pelvis, it is expected to feel discomfort and even pain in the lower back when ovarian cancer is developing. The discomfort can be associated with the expansion of the malignant cells and the destruction of healthy cells.
- Frequent urination
The urinary bladder has proximity to the ovaries. Therefore, as cancer affects ovarian health, it also influences the bladder’s function. As a result, women with ovarian cancer tend to have frequent urination urges.
- Feeling full quicker
Early satiety is a condition wherein you feel full quickly after a few bites. This can be associated with ovarian cancer since pelvic mass directly affects the GI tract causing a premature feeling of fullness.
- Painful intercourse
Sex may become painful when ovarian cancer is developing. The pain could radiate from the pelvis or inside the vagina. This could be attributed to the growth of the cancer cells leading to hormonal imbalance, causing dryness during intercourse.
- Sudden weight loss
Since women with ovarian cancer usually get full quickly, losing weight is not surprising anymore. Also, as the body tries to keep up with the repair of tissue damage in the ovary, some changes in the crucial functions take place, which also influences weight loss.
- Changes in bowel habits
The impact of ovarian cancer on the GI tract extends to some changes in bowel habits. For example, women developing ovarian cancer can experience constipation or even irritable bowel syndrome. This is due to the abnormal ovarian function involving several hormones.
- Irregular menstrual cycle
As cancer invades the ovary, it is expected that the most critical functions of the organ get a hit. Consequently, it alters the menstrual cycle. So, if you usually have a regular cycle and then suddenly it turns irregular, you may want to see your doctor immediately.
How Is Ovarian Cancer Diagnosed?
The first thing your gynecologist will do to assess ovarian cancer is a pelvic exam. With this simple procedure, your doctor will physically examine your ovaries to detect enlargement.
In addition to a pelvic exam, your doctor will also perform a transvaginal ultrasound to get a clear picture of your ovaries. This will also provide a more detailed view of the ovaries, making it easier to locate abnormal masses.
Finally, a blood test called the CA-125 blood test will be requested. Cancer antigen 125 (CA-125) is a protein that acts as a tumor marker for ovarian cancer. Increased levels of this protein suggest malignant cells in the ovaries.
Aside from diagnosis, the CA-125 blood test is also used to monitor treatment. Decreasing levels of the protein indicate that the treatment is working.
Ovarian Cancer Vs. Ovarian Cysts
Ovarian tumors are the hallmark of cancer. After all, a mass of cells suggests abnormal tissue growth in the ovary.
However, not all tumors are automatically identified as ovarian cancer. Ovarian cysts which are benign or non-cancerous are also common among many women.
While both abnormal growths appear to have the same symptoms, the key difference between the two is malignancy. Simply put, cancerous tumors fall under ovarian cancer, while ovarian cysts are benign and usually not life-threatening.
A blood test is a good way to differentiate ovarian cancer from ovarian cyst.
How Are Ovarian Cysts Formed?
The pair of ovaries typically produce egg cells or ova alternatively. Both are as large as almonds and located within the pelvis.
After the menstrual period, the ovary grows the egg cell inside a sac or follicle. The egg cell matures and gets released from the follicle during ovulation.
Once the ovum reaches the fallopian tube, the empty follicle in the ovary should dissolve.
However, it could be that the follicle fails to disintegrate. Instead, it remains in the ovary and accumulates fluid or air, forming a cyst.
More often than not, ovarian cysts are non-cancerous and can be treated non-invasively if caught early.
How Is Ovarian Cancer Developed?
Ovarian cancers form from mutated cells in the ovary. It doesn’t typically sprout from the follicles but within the tissues themselves. It’s a result of a DNA mutation hindering abnormal cells from committing suicide through the process of apoptosis.
The natural response of cells when they form irregularities or begin to malfunction is to succumb to death so it won’t cause any damage to healthy cells. However, cancer cells go against this process. Instead, they grow uncontrollably until they destroy the organ and adjacent tissues.
It could be hard to detect ovarian cancer if you’re not aware of the early warning signs.
You may be experiencing some of its symptoms, not knowing it’s the onset of cancer simply because they appear to be similar to other conditions.
But with the increasing prevalence of cancer, it’s time to stop ignoring these symptoms. If you’re experiencing any of the mentioned conditions, consult your gynecologist.
Even a routine checkup could become the gateway for ovarian cancer diagnosis. So, don’t take it for granted.