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4 Signs of Ovarian Cancer Plus Risk Factors

Every year, nearly 22,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer and more than 15,000 die from it. Ovarian cancer is a growth of abnormal malignant cells that begins in the ovaries and it’s the deadliest of gynecologic cancers. This is due in large part to the fact that 3 of 4 patients are diagnosed in the late stages. At that point, the disease has 70 to 90 percent rate of recurrence and is difficult to cure.

Ovarian tumors can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Although abnormal, cells of benign tumors don’t metastasize (spread to other parts of the body). Malignant cancer cells in the ovaries can metastasize in two ways: directly to other organs in the pelvis and abdomen (this is the most common way) or through the bloodstream or lymph nodes to other parts of the body. The causes of ovarian cancer are unknown, but there are some risk factors that are good to be aware of.

Risk factors include:

-Women who have inherited genetic mutation in one of two genes: breast cancer gene 1 (BRCA1) or breast cancer gene 2 (BRCA2). This is responsible for 5 to 10 percent of all ovarian cancers. Eastern European women and women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent are at a higher risk of these mutations.

-Women with an inherited syndrome called hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC or Lynch Syndrome). Women with HNPCC have about a 12 percent lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer.

-Woman with one first-degree relative with ovarian cancer have an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. The lifetime risk is 5 percent for these women (the average woman’s lifetime risk is 1.4 percent).

-Research suggests a relationship between the number of menstrual cycles in a woman’s lifetime and her risk of developing ovarian cancer. This includes starting menstruating at an early age (before 12), has not given birth to any children, had her first child after 30, experienced menopause after 50, infertility, or has never taken oral contraceptives.

-Women who use menopausal hormone therapy are at an increased risk. explains that “recent studies indicate that using a combination of estrogen and progestin for five or more years significantly increases the risk of ovarian cancer in women who have not had a hysterectomy. Ten or more years of estrogen use increases the risk of ovarian cancer in women who have had a hysterectomy.”

-A study found that obesity associated with an almost 80 percent higher risk of ovarian cancer in women 50 to 71 who had not taken hormones after menopause.

Early detection of ovarian cancer saves women’s lives. There are currently no screening tests that exist that can test all women for ovarian cancer. The annual Pap test does not test for ovarian cancer; it screens for cervical cancer. That’s why your best protection is to watch for these 4 signs of ovarian cancer:


-Pelvic or abdominal pain

-Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly

-Urinary symptoms (urgency or frequency)

Other signs could include fatigue, indigestion, back pain, pain with intercourse, constipation, and menstrual irregularities. These symptoms are not as useful in identifying ovarian cancer, however, because they appear in equal frequency in women in the general population who don’t have ovarian cancer.

If you experience the above symptoms, tell your doctor right away. Your doctor will most likely perform a complete pelvic exam, a transvaginal or pelvic ultrasound, and a CA-125 blood test. Used individually, these are not definitive. These are most effective when used in combination with each other. Doctors may also use a CT scan or PET scan as part of the diagnostic process. Right now, the only definitive way to determine if a patient has ovarian cancer is through surgery and biopsy.

Knowledge is key in detecting ovarian cancer early. You know your body best. If something doesn’t feel right, conduct your own research of what you think it could be and see a doctor. Once you get your doctor’s professional opinion, ask him or her if it could be anything else. This causes your doctor to pause and think about all other possibilities. Don’t be afraid to get a second or third opinion, as well. If you continue to get the same diagnosis, you might have your answer. St. Louis Ovarian Cancer Awareness, an organization we support, reminds us on their website that the most important thing you can do is “educate yourself, listen to your body and take action.“

Great resources for more information include St. Louis Ovarian Cancer Awareness (SLOCA) and

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