Signs and Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer
Ovarian cancer is usually diagnosed late since it develops insidiously, with very few warning signs or symptoms. Even when present, the complaints are often so vague that it is invariably mistaken for gastrointestinal symptoms. Abnormal vaginal bleeding may be the only gynecological problem.Even so, ovarian cancer is usually not the first diagnosis to be considered in women with such symptoms. This is further compounded by the lack of good screening methods for detecting ovarian cancer in the early stages. Unfortunately, this delay in diagnosis usually costs the patient in terms of treatment and management.
The symptoms of ovarian cancer may be develop over several months. The common symptoms are :
Non-specific Gastrointestinal Complaints
- Loss of appetite
- Bloating – feeling of fullness, especially after a meal
- Abdominal distention is usually due to ascites (fluid accumulation in the abdomen). This is likely to be seen in advanced cases.
- Altered bowel habits, such as constipation
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding may occur when there is concomitant endometrial carcinoma, or due to metastasis to the uterus, cervix or vagina. This may present as heavy periods or postmenopausal bleeding.
- Menstrual irregularities may be the result of excessive estrogen or androgen production by some types of ovarian cancer.
- Pain during intercourse
- Virilization in case of androgen producing tumors.
- Pelvic mass detectable on examination or even an abdominal mass with a large tumor
- Feeling of weight or pressure in the pelvis usually with large tumors
- Lower abdominal discomfort
- Severe pelvic or abdominal pain
- Urinary symptoms – retention, frequency, or urgency
- Rectal discomfort
- Bowel obstruction
- Intractable back pain, worsening over time
- Unintentional and unexplained weight loss or gain
- Excessive fatigue
Complications of Ovarian Cancer
- Cancer may spread (metastasis) to other tissues and organs.
- Bowel obstruction.
- Urinary complications.
- Swelling of the legs due to lymphedema.
- Virilization, such as abnormal hair growth.
- Shortness of breath due to a pleural effusion may occur in advanced cases.
- Loss of ovarian function leading to problems such as infertility.
- Complications of treatment, including complications of surgery and chemotherapy.
- Psychological problems.
Prevention of Ovarian Cancer
Prevention and early detection of ovarian cancer is hindered by the fact that there are no accurate screening methods specifically for ovarian cancer.
- Regular pelvic examinations may help in early detection in some cases, but is not an extremely accurate screening method for ovarian cancer.
- Women with strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer should undergo genetic testing to detect the presence of mutant genes that are risk factors for ovarian cancer.
- Preventive surgery, involving removal of the ovaries (prophylactic oophorectomy), in women with mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 can protect against ovarian cancer.
- Pregnancy, breastfeeding, and prolonged use of contraceptive pills may protect against ovarian cancer. There are risks associated with long term use of contraceptive pills, such as increased risk of breast cancer, which need to be considered, though.
- Lifestyle changes which include a balanced diet with less fat consumption and losing weight if obese may help to lower the risk.