Ovarian cancer is known as the “silent killer” for good reason—the disease doesn’t have as many obvious indicators as, say, breast or skin cancer. But that doesn’t mean women don’t experience symptoms.
Oftentimes, though, those symptoms aren’t easy to spot.”They’re very discrete, easy to ignore, and can easily be attributed to other things like changing their diet,” says Shannon Westin, M.D., an associate professor in the department of gynecologic oncology and reproductive medicine at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Basically, “they’re easy to blow off,” says Westin. Unfortunately, dismissing the signs of ovarian cancer allows the disease to progress, making it more difficult to treat when it is detected. “But often that contributes to a delay in diagnosis.”
The American Cancer Society (ACS), ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths in women and causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system.
Again, these symptoms are pretty vague but if you’re having one of these that won’t quit—or several at once—it’s at least worth a conversation with your doctor:
1. You have persistent abdominal or pelvic pain.
This is generally a sign that ovarian cancer has spread, says Mitchel Hoffman, M.D., a gynecologic oncologist at Moffitt Cancer Center. “When we operate in ovarian cancer patients, the majority have metastasis,” he says (meaning, it’s spread to other areas).
“There can be quite a lot of tumors in the pelvis, upper part of the abdomen, bowel, and all the way up to the diaphragm,” he says. Ovarian cancer can also cause a fluid build-up in the abdomen called ascites, Hoffman says—and all of these factors can cause pain.
2. You feel nauseous, or that you can’t eat as much as you typically do.
When ovarian cancer spreads, it can affect the way your bowels work.”Things can get backed up, and that can cause nausea,” says Westin.
A woman’s risk of getting ovarian cancer during her lifetime is about 1 in 78, per the ACS.
The same goes for feeling full sooner than normal or that you aren’t able to eat as much as you typically can.
If that’s the case, your stomach may have less space than usual because of a growing tumor, or you could have fluid buildup that also makes you feel full.
3. You’re always bloated and constipated.
Ovarian cancer can make you feel bloated, again, because of impaired bowel function, says Hoffman. “In order for [your bowels] to function normally, the bowels have to have a muscular function to push things through,” he says. But when cancer forms on the outer surface of the bowel—which happens when ovarian cancer starts to spread—it can impair that function, says Hoffman.
Bloating is especially suspicious if you haven’t changed up your diet or exercise routine, says Westin.
4. You’re peeing a whole lot.
This could be from an ovarian tumor, Hoffman says. “There’s only so much room in the pelvis,” he points out. “When a woman starts to get a tumor there, it pushes on the bladder and decreases the amount of bladder capacity,” he says. That, in turn, makes the bladder feel fuller, faster—and like it needs to be emptied often.
5. Your period is really irregular.
This is a biggie, Hoffman says. If there’s a tumor on your ovary, it can disrupt the way it normally works, ultimately throwing your cycle out of whack, he explains—so if you notice any big change in your cycle (more frequent periods, less frequent periods, no periods at all), it’s important to check in with your doctor for a variety of reasons.
Another possibility: Some ovarian tumors even produce their own estrogen and can interfere with your cycle that way by mimicking period bleeding, says Westin. This can happen even after you’ve gone through menopause and your periods have stopped, which is another red flag.
6. You have pain during sex.
There are a few possible things at play here. First, it could be that you have an ovarian tumor that’s pushing into your vagina. Penetrative sex rubs against it.
Hormonal changes that can happen in your body due to ovarian cancer can lead to vaginal dryness. That can cause discomfort or pain during sex, Westin says.
7. You have crazy heartburn.
If ovarian cancer is messing with your bowels, things get backed up, Westin explains. “Then things push up against your stomach and push reflux into your esophagus,” she says. “Everything goes in the wrong direction.”
Ovarian cancer is more common in older women, and your symptoms are likely due to something other than cancer. You should have it checked out, just in case. So, call your doctor and flag your concerns. “Schedule a visit and ask them, ‘Could it be my ovaries?’” says Deborah Lindner, M.D., chief medical officer of Bright Pink—it could save your life.