Adora Rodriguez was only 16 years old when she developed a feeling of heaviness in her lower abdomen, along with severe bloating.
“I was like, ‘Mom, something isn’t right,’” Adora recalled. “My mom literally described it as, I ‘looked pregnant.’”
The feeling of heaviness in her belly was causing back pain and making it hard to sleep.
So, she went with her mother to an urgent care clinic, where healthcare providers ordered a pregnancy test. When it came back negative, they ordered an ultrasound exam.
“All they said was, it could possibly be severe constipation,” Adora told Healthline.
After multiple tests and scans, Adora learned that she had a mass in her abdomen.
A surgeon removed the mass later that week, along with Adora’s right ovary and fallopian tube. Biopsies revealed it was a form of germ-cell ovarian cancer, known as dysgerminoma.
Adora is now 20 years old and studying to become a pediatric oncology nurse. In some ways, she was lucky: The cancer was found and removed early when it was still at stage 1, before it could spread to other organs.
“My surgeon and my oncology doctor both told me, ‘If you waited, maybe a week later, it’s possible it would have spread,’” Adora said.
Early diagnosis and treatment are essential for increasing the chances of survival in people with ovarian cancer.
Among those who get a diagnosis at an early stage, the American Cancer Society reports that about 94 percent live for more than 5 years after diagnosis.
In those who receive a diagnosis after the cancer has spread, the survival rates are much lower.
But only around 20 percent of ovarian cancers are detected at an early stage. Most people who develop ovarian cancer don’t learn they have it until after it’s already spread.
That’s because the symptoms of ovarian cancer are often very subtle and easy to miss.
The symptoms are also similar to those of other conditions, raising the risk of misdiagnosis.
We talked to four women who have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer to learn more about their diagnosis experiences and what advice they have for others.
According to Mariangela DiPietri, a 73-year-old ovarian cancer survivor, mother of three, and grandmother of 10, learning about the symptoms of ovarian cancer may prove lifesaving.
“I have been retired from my job at Stanley Foods as a service representative for 7 years now,” Mariangela told Healthline, “but I remember the day I was at a client restaurant during an appointment, when the excruciating pain in my abdomen got so bad I could hardly ask for a glass of water.”
After multiple hospital visits and an initial misdiagnosis, Mariangela learned she had masses on both ovaries. Those masses turned out to be stage 1 ovarian cancer.
Two months before then, Mariangela had attended a wellness conference with her daughter where she learned about ovarian cancer for the first time from women who had survived it.
“I’m forever thankful for the day I attended the wellness event,” Mariangela said. “I can’t stress enough the fact that awareness of symptoms of ovarian cancer and early diagnosis saved my life.”
Looking back, Mariangela realizes that she had been living with subtle symptoms of the disease for some time — including fatigue, bloating, back pain, and bladder fullness.
Other potential symptoms of ovarian cancer include:
- belly pain
- abdominal swelling
- feelings of fullness
- trouble eating
- pain during sex
- irregular periods
Less than 2 years ago, Vesna, a 46-year-old mother of three and owner of a martial arts fitness studio, visited her gynecologist to talk about a symptom that just wouldn’t go away: persistent abdominal bloating.
Vesna, who asked to go by her first name only for this story, had been used to waking up with a flat stomach. Then the bloating started, and her stomach wasn’t flat in the morning anymore. “It was kind of protruding out,” she told Healthline.
Her gynecologist thought that she likely had a urinary tract infection.
But Vesna was certain that wasn’t it.
“I said, ‘Can you do an internal sonogram?’ and she said, ‘No, no, no,’” Vesna recalled, “and she proceeded to tell me that she was going on vacation with her kids, so she was picking them up from school in 20 minutes.”
Vesna left her gynecologist’s office feeling dismissed, without any answers but sure that something was wrong.
When she drove by her primary care doctor’s office a few weeks later, she decided to make an impromptu visit. The receptionist told her that no doctors were available to see her then, but something in Vesna pushed her to stay.
“I said, if I don’t advocate right now for myself, I know I’m going to let this go. So I pointed at a chair — this is so unlike my character — and said, ‘I’m going to sit right in that chair until somebody sees me,’” Vesna said.
“That was my turning point. That moment right there was what saved my life,” she added.
A physician’s assistant agreed to give Vesna an exam. After palpating her abdomen, they sent her across the street for imaging tests.
Vesna learned that she had a cyst in her abdomen the size of a seedless watermelon.
When a surgeon removed the cyst, they found both stage 1 ovarian cancer and endometrial cancer inside.
Now Vesna encourages others to listen to their bodies, advocate for the care they need, and if they don’t feel confident in a diagnosis, get a second opinion.
“No one, not even the best doctors in the world, knows your body like you know your body,” Vesna said, “and your body gives you signs by pain, by discomfort. Listen to it.”
An ovarian cancer diagnosis changes your life, Kristinna Abalos, a 30-year-old English teacher, writer, and survivor of stage 4 ovarian cancer, told Healthline.
Kristinna’s advice for getting through the process? Take it one day at a time.
“One of my great friends asked me, ‘Are you always going to describe yourself as a cancer patient?’ And I think what I learned through this is that looking at such a big time frame of ‘always’ is too much,” Kristinna said.
“I can only tell you how I feel today. Tomorrow may be different, and I think every day we wake up, we’re still just going to be at today,” she continued.
Kristinna learned that she had ovarian cancer about 4 years ago during an emergency cesarean delivery of her son, Shiloh.
The cancer had spread to other organs in her abdomen and required extensive surgery and chemotherapy to treat.
Support from loved ones helped Kristinna cope with the challenges she faced along the way.
“My whole family, they were praying for me. And you know, I come from a faithful family on both sides, my husband’s side and my family’s side. So they all prayed for me,” she recalled.
All of the survivors whom we spoke with talked about the importance of community support, as well as finding inner sources of resilience and determination.
“There’s a fine line between feeling sorry for yourself when you hear you have cancer and crawling into a big, dark, deep space,” Vesna said.
“I got angry. All of that built anger inside of me, that gave me a warrior mentality, and that warrior mentality did something to me. I was up for the challenge,” she added.
Currently, there are no reliable screening tests for ovarian cancer.
That’s why it’s so important to pay close attention to your body.
If you develop symptoms of ovarian cancer that persist for more than 2 weeks, the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition recommends making an appointment with your doctor.
If you don’t think that your healthcare provider is taking your concerns seriously or you’re not confident in the diagnosis or treatment plan they provide, get a second opinion.
“Because I listened to my body, I stood firm and became my own advocate,” Vesna said. “I feel like that’s what saved my life.”