Ovarian Cancer Is Not Silent, Learn to Recognize the Signs 

Heather Logue Fact Checked
A woman on a couch looking thoughtful.
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Surprises can be wonderful. After all, who doesn’t love a spur of the moment soiree with friends or an unexpected treat (especially if it’s ice cream). However, there is one aspect of your life where surprises are most definitely not welcome: when it comes to your health.  

Many of the 22,000 women diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year can relate. Often referred to as the “silent killer,” ovarian cancer is quiet, deadly and hard to detect.  

Or is it possible that the signs and symptoms just aren’t being taken as seriously as they should be?  

Now is the time to learn more about ovarian cancer 

You’ve seen the endless stories circulating in the news. Scary tales about women telling their doctors, “Something just doesn’t seem right,” and being dismissed. Until their cancer is discovered once it’s grown to the size of a grapefruit, or by the time treatments are much less effective.  

Dr. Barbara Goff, chair of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Washington School of Medicine says that early detection and action could save lives. If someone would just listen.  

Which is why you (and your doctor) need to know what to look for when it comes to ovarian cancer, and why you should be a fierce advocate for your own health. 

Why is ovarian cancer misdiagnosed so frequently? 

Ovarian cancer is sly. Symptoms can resemble things you’d experience with other common health issues like gastrointestinal problems or out of whack hormones.  

The thing that sets these symptoms apart? People with ovarian cancer are more likely to have a more recent onset of symptoms, and they usually feel discomfort or pain daily. For other conditions that are not ovarian cancer, the symptoms are more infrequent, usually flaring up a few times a month. 

“Many healthcare professionals are seemingly unaware of the symptoms typically associated with ovarian cancer, so misdiagnosis remains common,” says Goff. 

What are symptoms you should look out for? 

By now I’m sure you’re concerned about your ovaries — which, of course! Though the signs of ovarian cancer can vary, these are the most common symptoms associated with the condition: 

  • Bloating 
  • Increased abdominal size 
  • Abdominal and pelvic pain 
  • Urinary symptoms, like urgency (always feeling like you have to go) or frequency (going often) 
  • Change in bowel habits (severe constipation or diarrhea) 

If any of these are familiar to you (and you don’t have another logical explanation for them), then it’s time to get real with your doctor. 

“Both patients and healthcare professionals should be educated about these symptoms, and we all need a high index of suspicion in symptomatic patients to avoid delays in diagnosis,” explains Goff. “Women with early-stage disease have survival rates that are more than double those in women with advanced-stage disease. Therefore, symptom recognition with appropriate diagnostic testing remains very important in our efforts to improve outcomes.” 

So, to be clear — it’s always better to err on the safe side and be persistent with your doctor about your concerns. And as Goff notes, discovering ovarian cancer at an early stage more than doubles your chances of survival — which are odds you want on your side. 

How can you advocate for yourself if you know something is up with your body? 

Now that you’re aware of the symptoms of ovarian cancer, we have a few pointers on how to advocate for yourself during an actual appointment. 

Arriving armed with information is always a solid option. If you’ve researched the early signs of ovarian cancer and are bringing valid concerns to the table during your visit, your doctor is much more likely to take you seriously.  

You can also refer to a “symptom questionnaire.” Though it can’t decisively tell you whether you have ovarian cancer (you’ll still need a medical professional for that), it can be a helpful tool when it comes to starting that conversation. Plus, it can help you understand your symptoms and their frequency (if your symptoms occur less than 50% of the month, then the association with ovarian cancer is much lower). 

When it comes to speaking with your doctor, it also helps to write things down, or even practice what you’re going to say beforehand. Feeling prepared can increase your confidence and keep the lines of communication open (and less awkward).

But if your doc still isn’t onboard with your concerns, then it could be time to look for a different physician. The relationship and trust that you build with your doctor is invaluable, and you want someone who is on your side. 

What tests detect ovarian cancer? 

When it is time for you to get tested for ovarian cancer, generally your doctor will want to order a diagnostics test like pelvic ultrasound or a blood test, CA125. These tests don’t come with your routine check-up, but if you’re experiencing symptoms, they are a straightforward way to figure out what’s going on. 

You can also ask your healthcare provider about a preventative strategy. Since 50% to 70% of ovarian cancers seem to begin in the fallopian tubes, some women choose to have their tubes removed. This is especially effective for women who have certain genes that can point toward future issues, or people with precancerous lesions. 

“There might be an opportunity to remove the fallopian tubes but leave the hormonally active ovaries if you’re going in for another type of surgery like a hysterectomy and don’t want to have any more children,” Goff says.  

The takeaway 

Remember, the stakes are high when it comes to ovarian cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of the 22,000 women diagnosed with ovarian cancer every year, 14,000 will die from it. Again, many of those were late-stage diagnoses, which is all the more reason to encourage early detection and diagnosis. That number has the possibility of being so much lower. 

When it comes to your health, your voice is the most important voice in the room.  

Barbara Clements and Heather Logue contributed to this article. A version of this story originally appeared on the UW Medicine Newsroom.