According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 80,000 American women are diagnosed with a type of gynecologic cancer each year. Gynecologic cancers include endometrial cancer, cervical cancer, and ovarian cancer.
These types of cancer are most common in older women, especially women past menopause. However, gynecological cancers can occur in younger women too, including those who have yet to experience menopause.
Abnormal vaginal bleeding is a warning sign of a problem most women notice immediately. A lack of a period should be, too.
A missed period can mean a lot of things. You may be pregnant. Your body may be changing its cycle. You may have developed a reproductive disorder, like polycystic ovarian syndrome. Or you may have cancer.
Before you jump to these last possibilities, learn what a missed period really is and why it’s important to talk with your doctor even if you don’t have any other symptoms.
Most menstrual cycles fall between 21 and 35 days. Some cycles are regularly timed and rarely deviate. Others are constantly changing. It’s not uncommon for a period to be a few days late.
However, you have missed a period if you complete an entire cycle (21 to 35 days) and reach the point when you should begin your next period, but don’t have one. It’s important to make an appointment if this isn’t common for you or you’ve never discussed this with your doctor.
Many missed periods are the result of a benign problem. In some cases, the cause can be more serious, including ovarian cancer. The sooner a problem is diagnosed, the more successful the treatment is likely to be.
A woman is born with two ovaries, one on each side of the uterus. The ovaries are part of the female reproductive system and are responsible for producing eggs for reproduction. The ovaries also produce the majority of a woman’s female hormones, including estrogen and progesterone.
Ovarian cancer is cancer that develops in a woman’s ovaries.
Cancer cells outpace the growth of normal, healthy cells and don’t die the way normal cells do. They’re able to live and develop into cancerous tumors. They may also begin to spread and infect other parts of the body, including nearby organs or tissue. If not caught early, ovarian cancer can be fatal.
Symptoms of ovarian cancer are easy to overlook. They’re also often attributed to other conditions or are too nonspecific for a definitive diagnosis. For that reason, ovarian cancer is often able to progress to an advanced stage before it’s detected and diagnosed.
The most common symptoms of ovarian cancer include:
- abdominal or pelvic pain
- difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
- urinary changes, including feeling the need to go frequently
For women with ovarian cancer, these symptoms tend to be persistent. They don’t go away and may increase gradually. You should talk to your doctor if you have these symptoms for more than half the days in a month.
Other symptoms of ovarian cancer may help pinpoint the exact problem. These symptoms include:
- pain during sex
- upset stomach
- chronic fatigue
- abdominal swelling
- weight loss
- menstrual changes, including a missed period
Certain factors may increase your risk for developing ovarian cancer. These factors include:
Older women are more likely to develop this type of cancer. In fact, the American Cancer Society (ACS) says that more than half of women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer are 63 years or older.
White women are more likely than African-American women to develop ovarian cancer.
Women who are obese have a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer. You’re considered obese if you have a body mass index of 30 or higher.
Not Using Birth Control
Women who use or have used oral contraceptives, such as birth control pills, have a lower risk of ovarian cancer than women who have never used contraceptives. You must use the pills for at least three to six months before any benefits are seen. The longer you take the pill, the lower your risk is. Once you stop taking the pill, the risk remains lower than for women who never used contraceptives.
Research suggests that fertility medication may increase a woman’s risk for developing ovarian tumors. Additional studies need to be conducted, but initial research suggest that women who don’t get pregnant as a result of fertility drug use have the highest risk of ovarian cancer among women who use fertility drugs.
Women who become pregnant and carry a pregnancy to term before age 26 have a lower risk of ovarian cancer, compared to women who haven’t had children or have had unsuccessful pregnancies.
Each time a woman becomes pregnant and has a successful pregnancy, her risk falls even more. However, women who never get pregnant and women who don’t have their first full-term pregnancy until they’re 35 or older have a higher risk of ovarian cancer.
Estrogen therapy and hormone therapy may increase your risk for ovarian cancer. Women who take estrogen alone for at least five years have the highest risk. Women who take estrogen with progesterone have a slightly reduced risk.
Many symptoms of ovarian cancer are nonspecific and go unnoticed. That means they aren’t easily identified as a sign of ovarian cancer. A doctor should evaluate any symptom of ovarian cancer, including a missed period. Only 20 percent of ovarian cancers are diagnosed when they are still in an early stage, according to ACS.
It might not be a big deal — skipped periods do happen from time to time — but it’s better to be safe than to wait for larger, more problematic symptoms to appear.
No matter your age, you should be evaluated if you miss your period. Don’t wait until your next yearly physical. Make an appointment right away.
The signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer can be difficult to pinpoint. Many women don’t notice symptoms until the cancer has progressed to an advanced stage. If you’re worried about your cancer risks or if you have an increased risk for gynecologic cancers, make an appointment with your doctor. No matter the result, you’ll be thankful to have an answer.