Side effects and symptoms

Ovarian cancer is one of the deadliest cancers affecting women. This is partly because it’s often hard to detect early, when it’s most treatable.

In the past, ovarian cancer was often called “the silent killer.” It was thought that many women didn’t have any symptoms until the disease had spread.

However, ovarian cancer isn’t silent, even though its symptoms can be subtle and hard to distinguish from other conditions. Most women with this cancer do feel changes, like:

One of the most common ovarian cancer symptoms is pain. It’s usually felt in the stomach, side, or back.

Ovarian cancer pain can start when the tumor puts pressure on parts of the body that include the:

  • organs
  • nerves
  • bones
  • muscles

The more the cancer spreads, the more intense and consistent the pain can become. In women with stage 3 and stage 4 ovarian cancers, pain often is the main symptom.

Sometimes pain is a result of treatments meant to stop the cancer’s spread, such as chemotherapy, surgery, or radiation. Chemotherapy can cause peripheral neuropathy. This condition causes pain and burning in the:

  • arms
  • legs
  • hands
  • feet

Chemotherapy may also leave painful sores around the mouth.

The discomfort and soreness following cancer surgery can linger for up to a few weeks after the procedure.

Unlike cancer pain, which gets worse over time, treatment-related pain should eventually improve once you stop the therapy. Your doctor can find the best way to relieve your pain once you know whether it’s caused by cancer or your cancer treatments.

Many women don’t report pain to their doctor, even though it’s common with ovarian cancer. One reason may be because they’re concerned pain means the cancer is spreading — something they may not be ready to face. Or, they may be concerned about addiction to pain medication.

You don’t have to live in pain. There are good options available for pain relief. Your doctor can help you manage your discomfort and maintain your quality of life while you focus on treating your cancer.

Often, pain therapy will start with an evaluation. Your doctor will ask questions like:

  • How intense is your pain?
  • Where do you feel it?
  • When does it occur?
  • Is it continuous, or does it come and go?
  • What seems to trigger your pain?

Your doctor might also ask you to rate your pain on a scale from 0 (no pain) to 10 (worst pain). The questions and scale will help your doctor find the right pain-relief method for you.

The main treatments for ovarian cancer are meant to prolong your life and improve symptoms like pain. You may have surgery, chemotherapy, and possibly radiation to remove or shrink the tumor as much as possible.

Your doctor may also perform surgery to clear a blockage in your bowel, urinary system, or kidney that’s causing pain.

Your doctor also can give you medicine to directly address cancer pain. They’ll recommend a pain reliever based on the severity of your pain.

For mild pain, you may get prescribed an over-the-counter (OTC) analgesic such as acetaminophen (Tylenol). Or, you can try a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) like aspirin or ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil).

NSAIDs relieve pain and bring down inflammation in the body. Yet they can damage your stomach or liver, so use only the amount you need for the shortest amount of time.

For more intense pain, you may need an opioid medication. The most common opioid used to treat cancer pain is morphine. Other options include:

These drugs can also have side effects, which can include:

Opioids can be addictive. Use them very carefully and only under your doctor’s guidance.

Depending on where your pain is located, another option is a nerve block. In this treatment, pain medicine is injected into a nerve or into the space around your spine for more direct and long-lasting relief.

Other types of medications sometimes used to relieve ovarian cancer pain include:

When the pain is very severe and medications aren’t helping, a doctor may cut nerves during surgery so you no longer feel pain in those areas.

Your doctor might also suggest you try nonmedical treatments alongside medication to get relief. These can include:

  • Acupuncture. Acupuncture uses hair-thin needles to stimulate various points around the body. It can help with pain and other symptoms like fatigue and depression caused by the cancer and chemotherapy treatment.
  • Deep breathing. Along with other relaxation techniques, deep breathing can help you sleep and might also improve pain.
  • Imagery. This method distracts you from your pain by having you focus on a pleasant thought or image.

Aromatherapy, massage, and meditation are other techniques you can try to relax and relieve your pain. You can use these techniques along with your prescribed pain medication and ovarian cancer treatment.

To get the relief you need, see a doctor who specializes in managing cancer pain, particularly ovarian cancer pain.

Be honest and open with the doctor about how you’re feeling. Don’t hesitate to ask for medication or other pain-relieving therapies if you need them.