My grandmother died of ovarian cancer. So as I get closer to menopause, ovarian cancer is top of mind for me. Like most women, my grandmother was diagnosed at a late stage. Her ovarian cancer grew silently. And what turned out to be odd symptoms of ovarian cancer were first mistaken for gastrointestinal (GI) issues.
Why It’s the Silent Cancer
Ovarian cancer is often referred to as the silent cancer. There are two good reasons for this, says Kari Ring, MD, a gynecologic oncologist who specializes in treating women who have ovarian and other gynecologic cancers.
- Location. The ovaries are located in the pelvis — an easy place for tumors to hide. “The pelvis is meant to support things that can get pretty big,” Ring says. “So things have to get pretty big before people have symptoms.”
- Vague symptoms. Ovarian cancer symptoms tend to be very vague. “I tell people frequently that the pelvis is a confusing place. It holds lots of organs and has lots of connected nerve and blood supplies.”
What Are the Odd Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer?
There are 5 very clear signs to watch for, Ring says. Just think of the acronym BEACH:
- Early satiety (feeling full quickly)
- Abdominal (belly) pain or pelvic pain
- Changes in bowel and bladder habits
- Heightened fatigue (feeling run down and drained)
When to See a Provider: The 2-Week Rule
“It’s important for women to know the two-week rule. If something changes and stays for two weeks, a doctor should know about it,” Ring says. “We all have occasional constipation and diarrhea. If someone stays constipated or has diarrhea for two weeks, that’s cause for concern.”
It’s not surprising ovarian cancer often gets diagnosed at a late stage. Ring says, “A physician trying to figure out what’s going on with the patient will usually work through tests to see if there is an underlying GI and genitourinary condition first.”
Cancer is more difficult to treat when found at a later stage. But women who develop ovarian cancer have many more effective treatments than my grandmother did 20 years ago. “We can treat ovarian cancer almost like a chronic disease now,” Ring says.
What Are NOT Signs of Ovarian Cancer?
Ovarian cancer can have odd symptoms. But these are NOT signs:
- Night sweats
- Vaginal discharge
Can Back Pain Be an Odd Sign of Ovarian Cancer?
It’s not often a sign of ovarian cancer, but it can be. Ring explains: “It’s not one of the most common symptoms we see with ovarian cancer. But ovarian masses can cause low back pain depending on where they’re sitting in the pelvis.” Leg pain is a very unusual sign too. The actress Gilda Radner, who died from ovarian cancer at age 42, complained of shooting pains down her thighs, along with stomach bloating and cramping and fatigue.
Do You Have the Odd Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer?
Talk to your provider. UVA Health primary care can easily connect you to specialists if you need them.
Can a Pap Smear Detect Ovarian Cancer?
No. Pap tests can find cervical cancer. Unfortunately, there’s no screening for ovarian cancer. But research at UVA Health and elsewhere will hopefully change that one day. UVA Health has a clinical trial looking at ways to detect ovarian cancer.
Ovarian cancer screening is difficult to do because ovarian cysts are incredibly common. These are masses but they are not cancer, Ring explains. Cysts can cause symptoms similar to ovarian cancer. Depending on where they are, and what they look like, ovarian cysts may need to be removed. Learn about minimally invasive options at UVA Health.