If you were feeling bloated on a regular basis, what would you do?
Many women are more likely to change their diets than visit their doctors, suggests a survey conducted in the United Kingdom by the nonprofit organization Target Ovarian Cancer.
In some cases, that could put women at risk of overlooking ovarian cancer symptoms.
“The symptoms of ovarian cancer are persistent bloating, always feeling full, tummy pain, and needing to wee [urinate] more,” Annwen Jones, chief executive of Target Ovarian Cancer, told Healthline.
“If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms regularly, and they are not normal for you, it is important that you see your GP [primary care doctor],” she said.
Last month, Jones’ organization conducted an online survey of more than 1140 women in the UK using the market research platform YouGov.
Only 34 percent said they would visit their doctor if they started to feel bloated regularly.
In comparison, 50 percent said they would consider changing their diet, for example, by cutting out gluten or dairy or adding probiotic yogurt.
Forty-three percent said they would Google their symptoms, 23 percent said they would use over-the-counter medications, and 22 percent said they would get more exercise.
In a previous survey, the organization found that only 1 in 5 women in the UK identified persistent bloating as a symptom of ovarian cancer.
“Early diagnosis of ovarian cancer makes the disease easier to treat, so Target Ovarian Cancer is telling everyone to learn the symptoms,” Jones said.
“It’s unlikely that your symptoms are caused by a serious problem,” she noted, “but getting checked out by your GP is important and will put your mind at rest.”
Once known as the ‘silent killer,’ there actually are common symptoms
Ovarian cancer is notoriously difficult to detect early.
Only 20 percent of cases are diagnosed in the early stages, when treatment tends to be most effective.
The majority of cases are diagnosed in later stages, when the cancer has spread to other organs.
“Historically, ovarian cancer was thought to be the ‘silent killer’ because it developed without announcement, and before you know it, the patient had late-stage cancer,” Dr. Carmel Cohen, a professor emeritus of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive science at The Mount Sinai Hospital, told Healthline.
Many doctors believed that the disease produced no early symptoms.
This began to change in the late 1990s, when a growing body of research found evidence of early warning signs.
Those early warning signs don’t always appear, but when they do, they most often include bloating, abdominal pain, feeling full quickly, and urinary tract symptoms.
Other potential symptoms include fatigue, nausea, constipation, menstrual changes, pain during sex, and back pain.
Signs of ovarian cancer are easy to misdiagnose
The symptoms of ovarian cancer are more commonly associated with less serious conditions, such as indigestion.
As a result, patients don’t always take them seriously.
Their doctors might not suspect ovarian cancer either.
A previous study from Target Ovarian Cancer found that 41 percent of women visited their doctor at least three times before being referred for cancer tests.
“Often times, people would suggest maybe change your diet, maybe eat more roughage, maybe take some [antacids] if you’re having more reflux or bloating, and things like that,” Dr. Ronny Drapkin, director of the Penn Ovarian Cancer Research Center and member of the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund Alliance’s scientific advisory committee, explained.
“It’s not until those symptoms continue to persist after you’ve done all the commonsensical things that perhaps you’ll end up with an ultrasound or some kind of imaging that will reveal that there’s a mass in your pelvis that’s rather large,” he said.
By that point, the cancer has often spread to other organs and progressed to a stage that’s harder to treat.
Women should advocate for their care
To improve the chances of early diagnosis and treatment, it’s important for women to visit their doctors if they develop abnormal symptoms that last for more than a few weeks.
If they suspect that their symptoms might be caused by ovarian cancer, they may need to advocate for their doctors to conduct a pelvic exam, ultrasound, or other cancer tests.
“What I tell people all the time is that each woman really has to listen to her body carefully because if those things aren’t common for you or they persist for longer than they might normally, that’s when you really need to start advocating for medical attention,” Drapkin said.
“And that’s the important part,” he continued, “that every woman knows her body better than everyone else.”
Older women should feel especially empowered to ask for screenings.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines in the UK advise doctors to screen women over 50 who have symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) for ovarian cancer, since IBS rarely presents for the first time later in life.
If you’re over the age of 50 and are diagnosed with IBS, it could be lifesaving to advocate for cancer testing. Ovarian cancer is most common in women between 55 and 64 years old.
No routine screening
Several screening exams and tests have been developed for ovarian cancer, including transvaginal ultrasound (TVUS) and the CA-125 blood test.
However, the screening methods that are currently available are not very specific.
In other words, benign causes can trigger false-positive results.
This can lead to unnecessary and invasive surgical procedures.
Consequently, the US Preventive Services Task Force does not currently recommend routine screening for ovarian cancer in women without symptoms.
If you have a family history of ovarian cancer or BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic mutations, speak to your doctor about steps that you can take to lower your risk of ovarian cancer.