What you need to know about ovarian cancer

Two senior multi-ethnic women, one Caucasian and the other African American, sitting on a porch enjoying each other’s company. They are facing each other, smiling, talking and drinking coffee. Ovarian cancer can happen at any age but usually occurs when women are in their 50s, 60s and 70s.


Arm yourself with facts about the symptoms and risks of ovarian cancer so you can take control of your health.


By David Doo, MD, Gynecologic Oncology, Nuvance Health


Bloating. Lower back pain. Constipation. You have probably experienced these uncomfortable conditions at some point. They probably went away on their own or you knew what caused them, such as your period, eating a large meal or throwing your back out. What you may not know is that these are also a few signs of ovarian cancer.


Unlike cervical cancer, there is no reliable screening or early detection test for ovarian cancer — the second most common gynecologic cancer in the United States. That is why it is important to see your doctor if you notice unusual and persistent symptoms.


Here is what you need to know about ovarian cancer.


Learn more about Women’s Health Services


What is ovarian cancer?


Ovarian cancer happens when abnormal cells grow out of control in the ovaries, fallopian tubes or peritoneum. Ovarian cancer can happen at any age but usually occurs when women are in their 50s, 60s and 70s.


Ovarian cancer causes more deaths than any other gynecologic cancer mainly because symptoms are similar to common health concerns, such as constipation and fatigue. Symptoms usually occur when the cancer has already advanced.


Thankfully, Pap tests and HPV tests can prevent cervical cancer, colonoscopy screenings can prevent colorectal cancer, and screening mammograms can detect breast cancer early.


Yet, there are currently no such tests for ovarian cancer. That is why researchers at Nuvance Health are studying ways to develop screenings for ovarian cancer to detect it early before symptoms occur.


Learn more about cancer screenings and prevention at Nuvance Health.


What are ovarian cancer symptoms?


Common signs of ovarian cancer include:

  • Back pain
  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling the need to urinate urgently or often
  • Menstrual changes
  • Nausea
  • Pain during sex
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
  • Upset stomach or heartburn
  • Vaginal bleeding or discharge
  • Vomiting


What are the risk factors for ovarian cancer?


Risk factors are conditions or habits that may increase your chances of getting a disease like cancer. The most common risk factors for ovarian cancer include:


Age: The risk of developing ovarian cancer increases with age. According to the American Cancer Society, half of all ovarian cancer occurs in women aged 63 years and older.


Being overweight or obese: Being overweight or obese can increase risk of many cancers, including ovarian cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, fat tissue increases the production of estrogen, a type of hormone that can feed female cancers such as breast cancer, endometrial cancer and ovarian cancer.


Also, obesity is an inflammatory disease. Chronic inflammation can damage cells and lead to developing cancer.


Personal and family history of cancer: You will have a higher risk of ovarian cancer if a first-degree relative had ovarian cancer, breast cancer or colorectal cancer. First-degree relatives include parents, siblings and children. Your risk also may be higher if you have had breast cancer or colorectal cancer.


Genetic predisposition: Breast cancer, colorectal cancer and ovarian cancer are linked because they can share the same inherited gene mutations such as BRCA1 or BRCA2. Gene mutations that cause Lynch syndrome also increase the risk for all these cancers.


Pregnancy history: Never giving birth, having trouble getting pregnant or having first full-term pregnancy after age 35 can increase ovarian cancer risk. We believe this is because these women have more menstrual cycles, which exposes the body to estrogen.


Hormone replacement therapy: Taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT) after menopause may increase risk for ovarian cancer. HRT can help manage side effects from menopause, such as hot flashes, but also exposes the body to estrogen. Please speak with your doctor if HRT is right for you.


Are there ways to reduce my risk of ovarian cancer?


Having risk factors for ovarian cancer does not mean you will get it. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most women who get ovarian cancer are not at high risk.


However, you may be able to reduce your risk of developing ovarian cancer by talking with your doctor and making lifestyle modifications.


Here are ways you may be able to reduce your risk of ovarian cancer:


Maintain a healthy weight: Talk with your doctor to determine your healthy weight. You can also speak with your doctor if you need support achieving or maintaining your healthy weight. 


Eat a healthy diet: Eating a nutritious diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains and fiber may reduce your risk of many types of cancer, including ovarian cancer.


Birth control methods: Birth control pills, intrauterine devices (IUDs) and tubal ligation can reduce the risk of ovarian cancer.


Determine your ovarian cancer risk: Speak with your primary care provider or gynecologist to determine your ovarian cancer risk. Your doctor may recommend consulting a genetic counselor and ways to lower your risk, such as extra surveillance from your care team, medications and surgery.


Related content: There is more access and choice than ever before to different types of birth control


Whether or not you are at average or high risk for ovarian cancer, it is always important to know your body. Although ovarian cancer symptoms can be vague and mirror other benign conditions, speak with your doctor if you have persistent symptoms that are not normal for you. It is worth a conversation with your doctor to rule out anything that might be serious. Find a gynecologist near you.


The bottom line: Take charge of your health by arming yourself with facts about ovarian cancer symptoms and risk factors. You may be able to reduce your risk of developing ovarian cancer by eating healthily, exercising and not smoking.


You can also speak with your doctor about your personal and family health history and discover if you have a genetic predisposition to ovarian cancer.


Most importantly, see your primary care provider or gynecologist if you are feeling differently or experiencing symptoms that are not normal for you.


Learn more about gynecologic cancer care at Nuvance Health.