The 7 main symptoms of ovarian cancer

O ovarian canceralthough uncommon, is one of the malignancies specific to women with the highest mortality rate. Successful treatment depends on early diagnosis, so it is important to recognize the symptoms.

Although they may sometimes go unnoticed or be associated with other causes, early stage symptoms range from asymptomatic to symptoms such as constipation, abdominal and/or pelvic pain, vaginal bleeding, abdominal distension, diarrhea, or generalized feeling of fatigue, among others.

Any woman with ovaries can be affected by this cancer, but it mainly affects women over 50. However, in addition to age, a history of ovarian, breast or uterine cancer in the family is also a risk factor.

According to data from Globocan – the observatory of the International Agency for Research on Cancer – there will be an estimated 561 new cases of ovarian cancer in Portugal in 2020. It is the 7th most common type of cancer in women and the 5th most common cause of death from oncological diseases in women.

The high mortality rate is due to late diagnosis because it manifests silently and with non-specific symptoms.

Learn more about the symptoms and risk factors associated with this type of cancer.

A woman lovingly embraces a cancer patient

Ovarian cancer: what it is, risk factors and symptoms

What is this type of cancer?

Malignant tumors that originate in the ovaries or metastasize from other cancers are called ovarian cancer.

The origin of ovarian cancer corresponds to the epithelium on the surface of the ovary, in the germ cells, which give rise to the eggs, or in the outermost part of the fallopian tubes.

What are the risk factors for ovarian cancer?

Although the cause of this type of cancer is not exactly known, several risk factors have already been identified. However, the presence of these risk factors does not always mean that one will develop the disease.

It is important that you talk to your primary care physician. The reverse is also possible, that is, a woman can be diagnosed without having any known risk factors.

Known risk factors include:

  • Age: the incidence increases with age, it is a common cancer in women over 50 years, after menopause ;
  • Family historythe risk is higher when someone in the family has had ovarian cancer. However, other types of cancer, such as breast cancer, cervical cancer, and colorectal cancer, are also linked to an increased risk ;
  • Reproductive history and endocrine factorsThere is an increased risk in women who have never had a full-term pregnancy or who have had difficulty getting pregnant. The same is true for women with endometriosis or polycystic ovary syndrome;
  • Environmental factorsThe use of talcum powder in the perineal area, as well as exposure to asbestos, has been associated with an increased risk of ovarian cancer. Smoking, although not directly related, also has some influence;
  • ObesityOverweight increases the risk of developing this type of cancer;
  • Caucasian race;
  • Inheritance of genetic mutations Assoc.

Physician performing an abdominal examination on a woman

What are the symptoms? Know the 7 main ones

The first signs may be nonexistent or nonspecific and therefore easy to ignore. This is the main reason why ovarian cancer is only discovered at an advanced stage.

We can highlight, in the initial stage, seven main symptoms:

  1. Swelling, pressure and abdominal pain;
  2. Bloating after meals;
  3. Nausea;
  4. Difficulty eating;
  5. Diarrhea or constipation;
  6. Changes in menstrual cycle or vaginal bleeding after menopause;
  7. Frequent and urgent need to urinate.

In a more advanced stage, there may be symptoms such as fatigue, muscle weakness, weight loss for no apparent reason, back pain, increased abdominal volume due to tumor growth, painful sexual intercourse, vaginal bleeding, among others.

If there is pleural effusion or lung metastases, you may experience shortness of breath.

According to the Portuguese Society of Oncology, the vast majority of primary ovarian tumors fall into 3 main groups: epithelial tumors, tumors of the sex cords and ovarian stroma, and germ cell tumors.

As for epithelial tumors, there are four main subtypes:

  • Serous carcinoma;
  • Mucinous carcinoma;
  • Endometrioid carcinoma;
  • Clear cell carcinoma.

woman with abdominal pain

Ovarian cancer: treatment and prevention

Treatment will depend on whether the cancer is at an early or more advanced stage. Treatment should be designed by teams experienced in gynecologic oncology who will analyze the tumor’s progression and evaluate the patient, taking into account risk factors such as age and other diseases.

Treatment usually consists of a combination of surgery and chemotherapy. Treatment options are:

  • Surgery: This is the first option for early stages. Surgery aims to remove all or most of the tumor. In the latter case, chemotherapy is used after surgery;
  • Chemotherapy Systemic: when the tumor cannot be removed by surgery, chemotherapy is used to shrink the tumor so that it is operable ;
  • Targeted therapyThis option has the same goal as the previous one, chemotherapy.

With regard to prevention, there is no known way to prevent ovarian cancer, and routine screening is not formally indicated unless there are known genetic mutations or a family history.

However, certain factors have been shown to decrease the risk of developing the disease:

  • Use of the contraceptive pill for five years or more;
  • Having undergone tubal ligation, removal of both ovaries, or hysterectomy, i.e., removal of the uterus (in patients with genetic mutations or syndromes such as Lynch II syndrome, removal of the ovaries is recommended for prevention of ovarian cancer, and each case must be evaluated individually);
  • Some studies suggest that women who breastfeed for a year or more may have a reduced risk;
  • Having had a full-term pregnancy.

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