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Ovarian cancer is not the most common gynecological cancer, but it’s often the most deadly. Unfortunately, statistics show that only 20% of ovarian cancer cases are found in the early stages, which means subtle changes tend to go unnoticed for quite a while and the disease advances quickly and aggressively.
While there are some risk factors to keep in mind, like family history, age and obesity, it can be difficult to predict if and when ovarian cancer may arise. The best thing you can do for yourself is communicate openly with your doctor about your medical history and keep an eye out for any of these suspicious symptoms that may point to a serious issue with your ovaries.
1. Bloating and Fullness
Bloating is an unfortunate part of life for most women, but if it comes on unexpectedly and continues for a while, it can also be a worrying symptom.
Bloating that lasts for longer than a couple of weeks should raise concern, especially if it comes with weight loss and bleeding: a tumor on the ovary could be pressing against the intestines, or it may be releasing compounds that encourage fluid to build in the abdomen.
So, if you notice that your clothes are feeling tighter around your stomach and hips but you haven’t gained weight elsewhere, see your doctor.
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2. Loss of Appetite, Weight Loss
Often, serious bloating comes with a diminishing appetite and unexplained weight loss. Since the ovaries are close to the stomach and intestines, a growing tumor can begin to press on these organs, making you feel full even after a small snack.
Tumors also produce hormones that can interfere with your metabolism and appetite, leading to sudden and significant changes; even your favourite foods can be unappealing, and things can start to taste terrible.
Losing 10% or more of your body weight without trying is a cause for concern, but keep in mind that unexplained weight loss can point to a number of conditions – cancer may not be the culprit.
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Swollen legs and ankles are a hallmark of certain types of cancer, including ovarian cancer. The condition is known as edema, an accumulation of fluid above the tissues, just under the skin: when you press on the swollen area (usually the legs, ankles, or face), it will make an indent, and the skin may start to look shiny and stretched.
Extreme swelling points to a problem with your body’s natural filtering process, so any sudden weight gain and joint stiffening should be checked out right away to rule out cancer, which could be interfering with your lymphatic system to cause the swelling.
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4. Unexpected Bleeding
About 50% of the time, ovarian cancer is found in women over age 60, which means that it’s primarily a postmenopausal condition (though not exclusively). In turn, any sudden or significant changes that occur after menopause will warrant a closer look, especially sporadic bleeding – if you’ve gone for at least 12 consecutive months without a period, any amount of vaginal bleeding is abnormal.
Some cases of ovarian cancer can bring other types of bleeding, regardless of your age, so visit your doctor if you notice blood in your stool or blood in your urine, especially if it comes with abdominal pain.
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5. Pelvic Discomfort
Pain rarely comes before other symptoms of ovarian cancer, but some women report aching, pressure, and other discomfort in their pelvis along with abdominal swelling and bloating. It’s easy to chalk it up to cramps, gas or indigestion, but when pain around the pelvic region (sometimes stretching to the lower back) is persistent and continues to occur in the same specific area, it’s time for a closer look. A mass on the ovaries could be pressing on the nerves in and around your pelvis without protruding enough to detect in a physical exam; your doctor will likely need to use an ultrasound or a CT scan to look for the source, which may uncover a tumor.
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Changes in your bowel habits can mean a lot of different things, from IBS to an infection. However, sudden and persistent constipation can point to a cancer in or around the digestive tract: a tumor that presses on the nerves in the spinal cord can slow down the movement of your bowel, or if the mass pushes against the intestines, it may narrow the rectum and make it difficult to poop. Pay attention to constipation that comes with abdominal swelling or chronic bloating, two of the more common ovarian cancer symptoms.
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7. Frequent Urination
A frequent and urgent need to pee is one of the earliest symptoms of ovarian cancer, a recent UK study has revealed. Along with abdominal pain and chronic bloating, most women reported changes in urination at least six months before diagnosis, which means that any increase in urgency or difficultly emptying the bladder should be checked out. Often, a urinary tract infection or other relatively minor condition is to blame, so don’t worry too much if you’ve noticed changes in your bathroom habits, but don’t ignore them either. In some cases, a tumor could be pressing on the bladder and causing the distress.
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Fatigue is a principal symptom in pretty much every type of cancer, so pronounced exhaustion should never be ignored. First, be sure you understand the difference between normal tiredness and fatigue: everyone feels sleepy from time to time, but when fatigue weighs heavily on your body and mind, you can barely keep up with simple daily tasks. It comes on suddenly, and no amount of sleep seems to help. If you’ve been eating less (a common consequence of appetite loss and bloating that comes with ovarian cancer), you may not be taking in enough calories to power your body. In other cases, the tumor itself takes up all the energy before it can reach your healthy cells.
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9. Pain During Sex
If intercourse has started to bring more pain than pleasure, you may need to visit your gynecologist. The most common cause of pain during sex is a lack of vaginal lubrication, but a relatively mild infection can also be to blame for aching, stabbing or burning pain. Lower pelvic pain may also result from an STD; less often, it signals cancer in the cervix, uterus, or ovaries. In advanced cases of ovarian cancer, the pain is usually deep in the right or left side of the pelvis.
The survival rate for ovarian cancer isn’t great – only 30% to 40% of patients will live for more than five years after diagnosis. But keep in mind that ovarian cancer is typically only found once it has progressed to later stages, so this statistic is a bit skewed; if you can catch it early, surgery and chemotherapy will raise your survival rate to over 70%. In the end, you owe it to yourself to get a thorough medical examination if you notice any warning signs, and if your GP doesn’t see a need for further tests, see another doctor.
Read more about the symptoms of ovarian cancer over at NewLifeOutlook.