6 Everyday Aches & Pains That Could Really Be Ovarian Cancer

6 Surprising Signs of Ovarian CancerTwo of my friends were recently diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Both are relatively young (under 55) and neither had it in their family. I was totally floored, especially since one of the friends I knew is from the gym, where she consistently worked out. And the other was an incredibly good person who had helped rescue hundreds of animals over the years -- no way could someone with such "good karma" get sick! I'm being a bit sarcastic, but yeah, it would be nice to think that cancer only touches the unhealthy or jerks -- alas, that is far from true.

Another thing that shocked? There is no regular screening process for ovarian cancer like there is for cervical or endometrial cancer. You can't find it in a PAP exam, either. Neither friend had an inkling they had cancer until they had full blown CANCER.

I was so spooked by my friends' experiences that I decided to do some research. Every year, thousands of women will have the same experiences my friends did. Many, unfortunately, will die. But maybe they don't have to. Not if they know what to look for.

What Are the Odds I Will Get Ovarian Cancer?

One in 70 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in her lifetime -- that's about the same risk of a woman getting breast cancer in her 40s. Most of those women will be in their 60s, but many, like my two friends, will be younger. Some, like 25-year-old model Elly Mayday, much younger.

The biggest risk factors, Dr. Joycelyn Speight, a radiation oncologist, told me are a family history of it or if you're carrying the BRCA gene or if you have Lynch syndrome. For the last two, you need genetic testing, including periodic transvaginal ultrasounds and/or the CA-125 blood test. Angelina Jolie made headlines last year when she opted for a double mastectomy because she carries the BRAC1 gene (her mother, Marcheline, died of ovarian cancer at age 56).

There are other smaller risk factors that could have some role in you getting ovarian cancer (but are not nearly as influential as BRCA or a family history), including having started your period early (for women in their 50s or 60s, this might mean at 8 or 9 years old), trouble getting pregnant, not having had any kids, and a history of the inflammatory disease endometriosis. 

OMG, Do I Have It?!!

If you are like me and don't have any kind of history, we need to be on top of our game. Look for the signs and don't ignore them. The scary part? The symptoms tend to be vague and sneaky, symptoms that could be associated with a wide array of issues -- or could be nothing at all.

"Early diagnosis is key," says Dr. Speight, who is based in Las Vegas. "Since we don’t have a good screening tool now, increased awareness by the patient and healthcare providers is very important. Women must feel empowered to go to the doctor if they're concerned."

What Do I Need to Watch Out For?

1. Stomach pain and bloating. In the cases of my two friends, both had stomach aches. My first friend thought she had food poisoning. She ignored the symptoms for a few days, thinking it would go away. And then suddenly she had excruciating pain -- an ovary had burst and she rushed to the emergency room. The burst ovary probably had nothing to do with the ovarian cancer doctors discovered. But luckily it happened, or she might have ignored her "stomach ache" for longer.

2. Stomach bulging out in an abnormal way. My other friend had long noticed that her stomach was slightly distended and bloated, even after she watched her weight and worked out regularly. Then one day, she felt what she described as a "sloshing" in her belly -- as if there were fluid in it. She went to the doctor, who thankfully did not dismiss her concerns as irritable bowel syndrome, and sent her to a specialist.

3. Losing your appetite quickly and feeling "full" quickly after starting a meal.

4. Painful areas or lumps in the abdomen.

5. Still being fatigued even after you've rested.

6. Frequent urination. Oh-oh!!! I am one of those frequent urinators. Does this mean I have it?

Of course not! Many women, myself included, have had most or all of these things at one time or another. Don't panic. The key is whether these symptoms are not your normal state. Did they come on suddenly and haven't gone away after a couple of weeks? Are they more noticeable and painful and insistent than you previously have experienced?

I'm Sort of Worried. What Should I Do?

Go to a gynecologist! Not an internal medicine doctor. "[Gynecologists] are usually more in tune with a woman's body," Dr. Speight says. If your concerns are dismissed and you truly feel they shouldn't be, don't be afraid to get a second, even a third, opinion.

Can You Prevent Ovarian Cancer?

You can absolutely lower your risk by doing a couple important things that will probably not surprise you but are worth hearing again:

1. Stay healthy. Yes, we've heard it a million times. Eat right, don't drink yourself stupid, quit the cigs, work out, etc. It can help your overall immune system, but there is no real scientific evidence proving that doing those things will decrease your chances of getting ovarian cancer. Dr. Speight says healthy habits can keep your "immune surveillance system" in working order though, so it's important to keep up a healthy lifestyle anyway.

2. Pay attention to your body and the signals it's sending you. Do not put off going to a doctor if you suspect something is wrong. Only YOU truly know your body. You must be its advocate.

My friends were both lucky their cancer was caught early. If you catch ovarian cancer in stages 1 or 2, says Dr. Speight, you have a 90 percent chance of hitting the five-year recovery mark (the amount of time where a person is generally considered to have "beaten" cancer -- though it can still come back). Catch it in stages 3 or 4, however, when most women discover it, and your odds drop dramatically to 5 to 20 percent.

We're all busy. We don't want to think about health issues. It's so easy to think, "Oh, it's just a stomach ache. I need to get Billy to his soccer game. I need to get Katie to her singing lessons. I need to finish this paper. I don't want to ask my boss for any more time off. I'm sure it's nothing."

But your kids need you alive. So do your friends and your family. And YOU. So read all of the above again, and do not prioritize everyone else over you. Listen to your body.

Did you know the symptoms of ovarian cancer? Do you know anyone who had it?

 

Image via Hey Paul Studios/Flickr

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Sirena Robinson

My family is currently dealing with this. My mother, who is 48, was recently hospitalized for severe stomach pain. They found fluid in her abdomen, a torqued intestine, and gall stones. The internist thought everything was resulting from the gall bladder, so they removed it. Well, long story short, the CT scan had revealed what the internist thought was an ovarian cyst, so he didn't even look at her ovaries during surgery. Mom thankfully followed up with her OBGYN who did a transcervical ultrasound and discovered that the cyst is not a cyst. It's a huge mass. We still don't know if it's cancer or not. She has surgery to remove both ovaries on Friday.

Suziand Charlie

If I may add some symptoms to ovarian cancer. I had ovarian cancer and had what my cancer doctor said was three of the definite signs. 1) A deepening in your voice....2) An enlarged clitoris....and 3) Hair growth that is usually only for men....hair such as: sideburns, mustache, and your neck area. I know a lot of women already have the fine hair that we wax, but this hair growth is much worse. It gets really long and is very noticeable. It could become a full on beard as a mans. When I had my cancer, I had 2 out of these 3 symptoms.

mandy... mandylynne87

My grandmother fought this for 8 years before she passed away. :'-(

Cathy Cheek

At 37 years old I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. One more symptom I had was back pain. Now, 20 years later and I am so thankful to be alive!

nonmember avatar LISA

Important to note that breastfeeding for at least 12 months lowers uterine, cervical, ovarian, and breast cancer by more than 50% ..

nonmember avatar Barbie

THANK YOU FOR POSTING THIS ARTICLE! Too few women know about the symptoms of Ovarian Cancer, and they are 'silent' in that they are often just ignored due to them being same as 'every day' issues. It is SO important to get the word out for women to pay attention to these symptoms and if they persist for more than a couple weeks - go to your GYN and push to really be heard. Caught early, there is such a huge chance for recovery/survival.

Debbie Rodriguez

My Mother valiantly fought this cancer for 11 years before losing her battle. Nine surgeries and countless batteries of chemotherapy gave her several years with us. It is likely that her mother had the same cancer, just unnamed at the time. I am hoping that the bravery of these women will alleviate the sufferings for our generation and our daughters.

nonmember avatar Jennifer

What if.you had.full hstyroctomy and have all you listed...than what you suggested. ..When lower gi and colonisopy has.been done as well as ultrasound

the4m... the4mutts

Jennifer- she's a blogger (and typically not a very well informed one) and she's definitely not a doctor. Go ask your doctor.

Momm2... Momm2threeboyz

Good article and good to know! They say moms know their body better than anyone!  As a mom, I know I have a tendency to ignore aches and pains because there's simply too much to do! I usually brush it off assuming I pulled a muscle, slept wrong or it's just gas. But if anything felt "not right", I would definitely go to Dr and see what's up. But it's nice to read precautionary stuff every now and then! 

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