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Community Advocacy Organization

How to spot the symptoms of ovarian cancer — a silent cancer

McLaren Greater Lansing Silent Cancer Series

Courtesy Photo-McLaren of Greater Lansing

A silent cancer affects organs and other parts deep inside the body and that would be difficult to find during a physical examination. Many silent cancers can’t be found with standard screening tools and cause only mild and nonspecific symptoms, which leads to their being undetected until the cancer has progressed.

Ovarian cancer is commonly referred to as a silent cancer because of its generic symptoms. Other silent cancers include pancreatic cancer, colorectal cancer, lung cancer, and breast cancer.

“Even though it’s considered to be a silent cancer, ovarian cancer does have symptoms,” said Jayson Field, MD, gynecologic oncologist at Michigan State University who provides care at McLaren Greater Lansing. “The problem is that these symptoms are easily overlooked by patients and medical staff because they are such vague and common ailments ones that all women experience from time to time.”

Symptoms of ovarian cancer can include pelvic pain, unexpected weight change, changes in bowel habits, irregular vaginal discharge, and/or pain in your belly or pelvis.

“What I think helps is to track the symptoms. If they go away after a day to two, it’s most likely not something to worry about,” said Dr. Field. “However, if you are experiencing symptoms consistently for three weeks or more, it is time to see your doctor and discuss possible causes, including ovarian cancer.”

If you are suspected of having ovarian cancer, your doctor will order additional tests to confirm or eliminate the diagnosis. These tests include a blood test and imaging (such as an ultrasound, MRI, or CT scan) to look for a mass. If such tests come back indicative of cancer, you can expect possible surgery and chemotherapy.

“There is no cancer screening, like a mammogram, for your ovaries, which makes ovarian cancer hard to detect in early stages,” said Dr. Field. “However, there are some things you can do to help with prevention—for example, eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise. We believe as many as two-thirds of cancers can be prevented by making healthy choices.”

Other measures that may lower your risk of developing ovarian cancer include taking birth control pills and breast-feeding your babies.

Additional preventative and risk-reducing measures may be considered by women who have a family history of ovarian cancer — and who are therefore at a higher statistical risk of developing cancer themselves. For example, genetic testing can help to determine whether you carry a specific gene mutation that significantly increases your risk. Depending on family history and genetic testing outcomes, some women qualify to have their Fallopian tubes (where ovarian cancer is believed to start in most cases) removed before cancer has any chance to develop.

For more information about ovarian cancer, click here.

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