How Ovarian Cancer Symptoms Change as the Disease Progresses
When ovarian cancer is in its earliest stages, it often doesn’t cause symptoms. However, the physical effects it has on the body progress with the disease.
Ovarian cancer accounts for more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system. It ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women overall, according to the American Cancer Society. This year in the United States, about 21,410 women will receive a new diagnosis of ovarian cancer, and an estimated 13,770 women will die of the disease.
Given the seriousness of ovarian cancer, it’s important to understand the signs and symptoms of it so you can make an appointment with your doctor immediately if you notice anything out of the ordinary.
Ovarian cancer symptoms by stage
There are a variety of ways to be screened for ovarian cancer, including blood tests, a pelvic exam, imaging tests or surgery. Once a patient has received an ovarian cancer diagnosis, a doctor determines what stage the disease is in by evaluating tissue samples from the pelvic and abdominal regions to assess the extent it has spread outside of the ovary and associated body parts such as the fallopian tubes. Determining the stage of the cancer is an important step in deciding how to move forward with treatment.
Although there are various subcategories of diagnosis within each stage of ovarian cancer, a simplified description of the disease divides it into four main stages:
- Stage I The cancer is confined to one or both ovaries.
- Stage II The cancer has spread from the ovaries to pelvic structures and other nearby locations in the body, including the uterus or fallopian tubes.
- Stage III The cancer has moved from the pelvis to the lining of the abdomen or nearby lymph nodes.
- Stage IV The cancer has reached more distant lymph nodes and organs in the body.
Unfortunately, ovarian cancer can sometimes go undetected in its early stages because the disease causes mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. Also, because the symptoms of ovarian cancer are exactly the same as many other, less severe issues, they are not recognized as being caused by a more serious disease. According to medical experts, this is largely because the ovaries are small organs deep inside the abdomen, making it unlikely for little changes at the cellular level to have much of an effect on surrounding tissue and organs.
Women with ovarian cancer are more likely to experience notable symptoms once the disease has progressed past Stage I and spread to nearby tissue and organs. How severe the symptoms become varies, although they typically are more painful and harder to manage as the cancer progresses.
Here are some of the most common symptoms of ovarian cancer:
- Pain in the pelvis or abdomen
- Changes in menstruation
- Extreme tiredness
- Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
- Abdominal swelling
- Sudden weight loss
- Pain during sex
- Back pain
- Persistent urge to urinate
- Frequent urination
You should talk to your doctor right away if you experience any of these issues, even though many of them can also be symptoms of noncancerous diseases and other conditions.
Ovarian cancer symptoms tend to be persistent and progressive and start to occur more frequently and become more severe over time.
The American Cancer Society advises women to consult with their doctor if they experience any potential symptoms of ovarian cancer more than 12 times in a single month. Since these symptoms typically indicate there is definitely a health issue involved, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor if you are experiencing any of them repeatedly.
Because of ovarian cancer's lack of initial symptoms, it's important to maintain regular preventive healthcare checkups and consult with your doctor if you have concerns, especially if any immediate family members have a history of ovarian cancer.