Ovarian Cancer – When Random Symptoms Matter Most

Salvador Saldivar, M.D., MPH

Salvador Saldivar, M.D., MPH

Cancer is simply defined as a disease in which cells grow out of control. In the case of ovarian cancer, one or both ovaries are impacted by a mass of growing cells. Treating this disease effectively requires early diagnosis and treatment. Unfortunately, symptoms are confused with everyday, common irritations such as bloating or weight gain. “Approximately 40 precent of patients are first seen in stage III – advanced stage ovarian cancer,” said Salvador Saldivar, M.D., MPH, associate professor in the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso Division of Gynecology Oncology, Department of OB-GYN. “The reason is that most symptoms are non-specific to ovarian cancer. Symptoms may include gastritis, bloating, reflux, indigestion, pelvic pain, and increased abdominal girth. Most women attribute these to something they ate or simply gaining weight.”

“Once reported to a physician, many times they are written off as gastrointestinal related,” said Dr. Saldivar. “It takes a high index of suspicion or an astute clinician to make the call to order a pelvic ultrasound.” What’s unfortunate is that studies show that most patients admit to recalling symptoms a year prior to being diagnosed.

There is no adequate screening test for ovarian cancer — like a pap smear is to cervical cancer — but approximately five to 10 percent of ovarian cancers occur in patients with a familial history of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, or other adenocarcinomas.

“Pap smears cannot detect ovarian cancer. The exam is to detect cervical dysplasia,” clarified Dr. Saldivar.

It is recommended to wait for symptoms to resolve themselves within two weeks, and after other possible causes have been ruled out. If symptoms continue, Dr. Saldivar recommends seeing your OB-GYN provider.

As with other female conditions, living along the border may influence seeing a doctor. “Like most other diseases, women along the border are susceptible to being diagnosed at a later stage simply because of access to health care or lack of use of health care because of the culture,” said Dr. Saldivar.

FROM: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Inside Knowledge: Get the Facts About Gynecologic Cancer campaign.

Signs and Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer

  • Vaginal bleeding (particularly if you are past menopause) or discharge from your vagina that is not normal for you
  • Pain or pressure in the pelvic or abdominal area (the area below your stomach and in between your hip bones)
  • Back pain
  • Bloating, which is when the area below your stomach swells or feels full
  • Feeling full quickly while eating
  • A change in your bathroom habits, such as having to pass urine very badly or very often, constipation, or diarrhea

Factors that may increase a woman’s risk for ovarian cancer:

  • Being middle-aged or older
  • Having close family members (such as your mother, sister, aunt or grandmother) on either your mother’s or father’s side who had ovarian cancer
  • Having had breast, uterine or colorectal cancer
  • Having an Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jewish background
  • Having never given birth or having had trouble getting pregnant
  • Having endometriosis (a condition where tissue from the lining of the uterus grows elsewhere in the body).

If you have one or more of these factors, it does not mean you will get ovarian cancer. But you should speak with your doctor, nurse or other health care professional about your risk.