6 Signs of Ovarian Cancer

April Daniels Hussar, SELF magazine

It's fairly uncommon, but ovarian cancer is so difficult to detect, it's been called the "silent killer." In honor of Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, make sure you know everything you can about the symptoms of this too-easy-to-miss disease -- and how staying healthy now can help you later.

According to Patricia Judson, M.D., a gynecological oncologist at the Moffitt Cancer Institute in Tampa, Fla., ovarian cancer affects about 24,000 U.S. women per year, and accounts for about 3 percent of all cancers in American women, rendering it "fairly uncommon." What's more, she says, it's far more common in post-menopausal women.

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However, the scariest thing about ovarian cancer, Dr. Judson says, is that it's very difficult to detect. "The vast majority of ovarian cancer is discovered at an advanced stage, and because of that, it's more difficult to treat," she explains.

Also making it tricky: The symptoms are very "nonspecific," Dr. Judson says, meaning they could be related to a variety of different ailments. You've probably experienced some or all of these yourself, at one time or another:

  • Abdominal bloating

  • Pelvic pain and/or back pain

  • Urinary symptoms (such as a change in how often you have to go)

  • Constipation

  • Fatigue

  • Abnormal bleeding or periods after menopause

Dr. Judson says it's quite common for her younger ovarian cancer patients to come to her thinking they're dealing with run-of-the-mill bloating and weight gain; still others tell her they've been diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. "The symptoms are so nonspecific, sometimes doctors don't think they're anything," she says.

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How can you tell if you need to get your symptoms checked out by your gynecologist? "Watch out for anything new," says Dr. Judson. So if you always have an achy back and bloating when you get your period, that's probably not a reason for concern; but if you suddenly start experiencing any of the symptoms daily for two or three weeks in a row, it's a good idea to get checked out. "If your symptoms persist, you need to get serious about them," she says.

When it comes to prevention, Dr. Judson says it's hard to tell women exactly what to do, because the causes of ovarian cancer are not completely understood. She does note that it's less common in women who have children when they're younger, women who have more than one child and women who use birth control pills. "It tends to be a disease of upper-middle class women," she adds, "because they tend to delay childbearing and tend to have fewer children."

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The most important thing you can do, says Dr. Judson, is to be aware of the symptoms, and see your physician if you suspect anything. And, Dr. Judson says, even though there are no guarantees, staying fit and healthy is the best way to help prevent all forms of cancer. "I believe strongly in nutrition," she says, adding that a predominantly plant-based, anti-inflammatory diet can help prevent cancer, and that staying fit is also vital to your overall health. "More importantly," she says, "if you do develop cancer, it will be a lot easier to fight it if you're otherwise healthy."

For more resources on ovarian and other types of cancer, check out SELF's Women's Cancer Handbook Resource Guide. And if you're in NYC, The Honorable Tina Brozman Foundation is holding a benefit dinner to raise awareness for early screenings at the Cipriani 42nd Street on Sept. 24.

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