‘The Silent Killer’: Ovarian Cancer Signs And Symptoms You Should Know

There are plenty of campaigns online about how to recognize signs of breast cancer. Women are trained to do self-exams and keep an eye on any changes in their breasts in between visits to the doctor. But ovarian cancer is not the same. In fact, it’s diagnosed early so infrequently that it has earned the name “the silent killer.”

So here’s what you need to know.

First thing’s first: According to Cancer.org, in 2017, more than 22,000 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and 14,000 women will die as a result of the disease. It is the fifth-deadliest cancer for women, and accounts for more deaths than any other female reproductive system cancer.

doctor photo
Getty Images | Adam Berry

If it’s this prevalent, then why is it so hard to catch? Well, though ovarian cancer can sometimes have early warning symptoms, they’re often vague and easy to misdiagnose—or there are no symptoms at all. Only 20 percent of cases are detected early.

Young suffering woman with appendicitis at doctor's office

Take the late children’s book author Amy Krause Rosenthal, for example. A trip to the ER for what she thought was appendicitis turned out to be ovarian cancer. She died two years later, in February 2017, after publishing a viral Modern Love column in the New York Times called “You May Want to Marry My Husband.”

These symptoms can be anything from feeling bloated or having abdominal swelling and pain, urinary symptoms or even feeling full quickly. All of these symptoms, though tied to ovarian cancer, can also be linked to any number of other diseases, making it difficult to catch them in time.

doctor photo
Getty Images | Christopher Furlong

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On top of that, by the time a woman experiences any of these symptoms, the cancer has typically spread beyond the ovaries. Some more aggressive types of ovarian cancer can spread at extreme rates to other organs.

cancer photo
Getty Images | Dan Kitwood

So how is this helpful when the symptoms are practically the same as a bad UTI or a minor stomach bug? It’s crucial to know what these vague symptoms are, first and foremost.

And if you experience them daily for more than a few weeks and a general physician can’t diagnose you with a more common condition, you need to see a gynecologist as soon as possible.

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Getty Images | David McNew

Speaking of gynecologists, you’d think that an annual checkup would be enough of a preventative measure, right? Well, because the ovaries are situated so deeply within the body, a typical pelvic exam won’t be effective in sensing a tumor. More advanced technologies, like a transvaginal ultrasound (which uses sound waves to detect tumors) or pelvic CT scans can help detect a tumor, but only a biopsy can determine whether or not it is cancerous.

You’re at an especially high risk for developing ovarian cancer if you carry the BRCA1 or 2 gene mutation, also known as the “breast cancer gene.”

Family history of ovarian and other reproductive cancers can also increase your risk factor, as well as health habits such as smoking and obesity. Additionally, your risk factor increases as you age—‚rates are highest in women between 55-64 years old.

nurse photo
Getty Images | Christopher Furlong

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The good news is this: If your ovarian cancer is caught in the earliest stages and treated as fast as possible, the survival rate is higher than 90 percent.

Though early diagnosis rates are, in a word, abysmal, information is key. Know the symptoms, know your family history. If you have lingering health issues that can’t be explained away, see your gynacologist right away.

Don’t take chances. It’s better to be safe than diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer.