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When ovarian cancer is detected early, before it spreads beyond the ovaries, the chance of survival is high. According to the American Cancer Society, the 5-year survival rate for early-stage ovarian cancer is around 93 to 98 percent.

The National Ovarian Cancer Coalition reports that 1 in 78 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in their lifetime. But 4 out of 5 people with this cancer are not diagnosedin the early stages because the signs of ovarian cancer can be easy to miss.

So, what are the silent signals of ovarian cancer? Let’s take a closer look at what’s known about often overlooked symptoms.

In its early stages, ovarian cancer may not present any noticeable signs. When symptoms do appear, they are often the kinds of symptoms you normally associate with more common conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and urinary tract infections.

For many people, this means that their ovarian cancer isn’t detected until it has spread. This, ultimately, can lower the survival rate for this type of cancer.

As already mentioned, many of the early signs of ovarian cancer overlap with symptoms of other common conditions. Most of the time, these symptoms are caused by something that isn’t cancer.

But waiting, ignoring your symptoms, or hoping they’ll go away isn’t the safest option. You are the expert on your body. So trust your intuition if something feels wrong or abnormal, and follow up with your doctor or healthcare professional as soon as you can.

Let’s take a closer look at 7 silent warning signs of ovarian cancer that are often ignored or overlooked.

1. Bloating

It’s normal to feel bloated around the time of your menstrual period, or when you’ve eaten certain foods. But bloating that doesn’t go away is a common symptom of ovarian cancer.

Around 72 percent of those with ovarian cancer say they experienced bloating. Here’s how some people describe the bloating:

  • It feels as though you’re pregnant.
  • It makes your clothes dig into your waist.
  • It makes it hard to button or zip your pants.

Bloating is often related to the buildup of fluid in your abdomen. It happens, in part, because of changes in your abdominal blood supply and in your body’s ability to drain fluids.

This fluid buildup is a concern because free-floating cancer cells can move through the fluid from one area of your body to another.

2. Abdominal or pelvic pain

One of the most commonly reported symptoms among people with ovarian cancer is pain in their abdomen and pelvis. In one recent study, around 39 percent of women with the diagnosis had experienced abdominal pain.

What the pain feels like can vary from person to person. Some say it feels like an intense pressure. Others say it feels like menstrual cramping, as though you’re being gripped or squeezed from within.

Exactly what’s causing the pain can also differ. As tumors grow larger, they can put pressure on other parts of your body, including your bowels, bladder, rectum, and spine.

3. Change in your bathroom habits

About 20 percent of people with ovarian cancer notice constipation, diarrhea, or some other change in their bowel patterns.

Ovarian cancer can also result in a need for more frequent urination or a greater sense of urgency about having to urinate. Around 7 percent say they experienced urinary problems prior to their diagnosis.

In addition to urination frequency and urgency changes, some women also felt a burning sensation during urination, and others felt their bladder was still full even after they had urinated.

4. Back pain

Back pain is a common condition that affects millions of people every year. Most of the time, back pain is caused by some type of injury and not cancer.

If you haven’t injured your back or your back pain isn’t getting better with treatments, talk to a healthcare professional about it. Pain in the lower back or sides can be a symptom of ovarian cancer.

5. Appetite changes

For some people, ovarian cancer causes a loss of appetite. Others may feel full even after eating just a small amount, and some have indigestion, nausea, or vomiting after they eat. These appetite changes can lead to unintended weight loss.

It’s not uncommon for these symptoms to be misdiagnosed at first as acid reflux or a similar digestive condition.

6. Menstrual changes

If you have menstrual periods, ovarian cancer can affect your period in a number of ways. It may cause you to:

  • miss a period
  • bleed more heavily than usual
  • have spotting or bleeding when you’re not having a period
  • experience vaginal discharge that’s different from what you’re used to

If you are post-menopausal, talk to your doctor if you experience vaginal bleeding. Bleeding after menopause is sometimes a sign of ovarian cancer.

Anytime your periods change, it’s a good idea to discuss what’s happening with a gynecologist, primary care physician, or another healthcare professional you trust.

7. Pain during sex

Pain during sex is one of the lesser-known signs of ovarian cancer. It can be caused by several other conditions, including:

If sex is painful, a health professional can help you find out what’s causing the pain. Even if it’s not ovarian cancer, diagnosing and treating the problem can keep you from feeling emotional distress along with the physical symptoms.

You may be at higher risk for ovarian cancer if you have:

  • a family history of ovarian cancer
  • had breast, gynecological, or colon cancer in the past
  • BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic mutations
  • obesity
  • never had a pregnancy
  • used hormone therapies or fertility drugs
  • had endometriosis

Unlike other types of cancer, there’s currently no screening test to detect ovarian cancer at an early stage.

There’s also no single test to detect ovarian cancer. Instead, your doctor will use several tests to look for a tumor in your ovaries and then test it to determine whether it’s benign or malignant (cancerous).

The diagnostic tests most often used to detect ovarian cancer include:

  • A pelvic exam. Your doctor will feel your lower abdomen and pelvis to check for changes to the size and shape of your ovaries and uterus.
  • Transvaginal ultrasound. This involves inserting an instrument into your vagina which uses sound waves to create a picture of the inside of your fallopian tubes, ovaries, and uterus.
  • CA-125 blood test. This test detects higher levels of a protein that is sometimes produced by tumors.
  • Biopsy. If a tumor is detected, a surgeon will remove a small sample of tumor tissue. The tissue will be tested to determine if it’s cancerous.

A delayed ovarian cancer diagnosis could endanger your life.

Because there isn’t a regular screening test to detect early ovarian cancer, and the symptoms overlap with other conditions, good treatment outcomes may depend in part on your ability to self-advocate. This may be especially important if you’re part of a group that’s often overlooked or underdiagnosed because of bias.

Self-advocacy isn’t always easy. It can be hard to talk about your symptoms, especially if you:

  • are a shy or reserved person
  • don’t know or fully trust your healthcare team
  • feel frozen by depression or anxiety
  • don’t know what to ask for
  • are younger or less educated than your doctor
  • have experienced discrimination or disbelief because of your sex, gender identity, race, or income
  • have never had to advocate for yourself in a medical setting before

Please hear these words of encouragement: Your symptoms are real. Your health is worth fighting for. It’s okay—it’s more than okay, it’s criticalto ask for what you need.

Most people aren’t born with good self-advocacy skills. They’re developed through practice — as though you are building a muscle.

Research involving women with ovarian cancer shows that self-advocacy has powerful effects, including:

  • you’re more likely to feel that your healthcare meets your needs and reflects your values
  • you’ll get more information to help you make better decisions
  • you’re more likely to get help for your symptoms before they become overwhelming
  • you’re more likely to create a supportive network around you
  • your overall well-being — including your mental and emotional health — is likely to improve

  1. Record your symptoms. In the days or weeks leading up to your appointment, document your symptoms to help your doctor understand the frequency and severity of your symptoms.
  2. Communicate your risk. Make sure your doctor knows about your risk factors, including your family history and any BRC1 and BRC2 genetic mutations you have.
  3. Emphasize what’s new. Because many of the symptoms of ovarian cancer are common, be sure you state clearly which symptoms are new and how long they have been happening.
  4. Educate yourself. Find out everything you can about ovarian cancer and the diagnostic tests to detect it. Know where the tests take place, who orders them, and whether they’re covered by your insurance plan, if you have one.
  5. Prepare questions in advance. This step is important if you tend to become anxious in medical settings. To make sure you ask every question that matters to you, keep a notepad or your phone handy so you can jot down questions as they occur to you in the days before your office visit.
  6. Involve your friends. If you have friends or relatives who’ve been diagnosed with cancer, ask them for guidance and support. What do they wish they’d done differently? How were they able to self-advocate? Would they be willing to role-play with you? In one study involving Black women with breast cancer, participants said the support they received from friends and family made a big difference in their ability to self-advocate.
  7. Ask for a referral. If you feel your doctor is ignoring or minimizing your concerns, ask for a referral to see a specialist. If you have health insurance, you can talk to your plan coordinator to see whether a referral is necessary.
  8. Be polite and firm. A good healthcare partnership is based on two-way respect and trust. Asking may be more effective than demanding.
  9. Find another doctor. This step is not an easy one, because finding a new doctor is time-consuming. Still, if you feel you’re not being heard, it is worth the effort to look for a healthcare professional who sees you, hears you, and gives you person-centered care.

Whether you’re just beginning to gather information about your symptoms or you’re much farther along in the process, thinking about ovarian cancer can be frightening.

It can be helpful if you have a variety of support systems around you. In addition to the support you have closer to home, here are some resources you may find helpful:

Resources for you

Ovarian cancer doesn’t always have noticeable symptoms in its earliest and most treatable stages. When symptoms do show up, they are often misunderstood because they can mimic the symptoms of other common conditions.

If you have abdominal pain, bloating, pain in your back or sides, unexpected vaginal bleeding, missed periods, changes in your bowel habits or appetite, increased urgency or frequency of urination, or painful sex, talk to your healthcare professional about your symptoms.

You may have to ask about ovarian cancer specifically and clearly, because these symptoms are sometimes misdiagnosed at first — but do self-advocate. Your health depends on an early, accurate diagnosis.