Late diagnosis of ovarian cancer is common.

Late diagnosis of ovarian cancer is common.

Spotting Ovarian Cancer Early: Taking Charge of Your Health

It’s easy to miss the early signs of ovarian cancer. The symptoms are often mistaken for other conditions, and sometimes there are no symptoms at all. Additionally, reliable screening tests for early detection are still elusive. As a result, ovarian cancer is typically diagnosed at stage I or II, when it has not yet spread significantly, only about 20% of the time1. However, there are steps you can take to proactively manage your health and increase the chances of early detection. In this article, we’ll explore the symptoms to watch out for and the factors that put women at high risk for ovarian cancer.

Early Symptoms: Speak Up!

Ovarian cancer often remains silent during its early stages, when it is confined to one or both ovaries. According to Dr. Leslie Boyd, director of NYU Langone’s Division of Gynecologic Oncology, there is ample space for the tumor to grow within the abdomen during this stage2. Gynecologic oncologist Dr. Katherine Kurnit, from the University of Chicago, agrees that symptoms typically emerge when the cancer starts to spread and impact other structures3.

However, there are cases where symptoms do appear early on. Being aware of these signs can help you take prompt action. Some of the early symptoms may include:

  • Bloating
  • Pain in the belly or pelvis
  • Feeling full quickly when eating
  • An urgent or frequent need to urinate4

If you experience any of these symptoms, especially if they are new and persistent, it is important to discuss them with your primary care doctor or gynecologist. Due to the non-specific nature of ovarian cancer symptoms, it is common for the disease to be misdiagnosed as gastrointestinal or bowel issues5. If your symptoms persist even after treatment for such conditions, consider seeking a second opinion or consulting your gynecologist. A pelvic ultrasound is a quick and informative test that can provide insight into your condition6.

High-Risk Factors: Know What Increases Your Odds

While growing older is a common risk factor for ovarian cancer, it is rare in women under 40 and becomes more common after menopause7. According to Dr. Boyd and Dr. Kurnit, two key factors that significantly increase the risk of developing ovarian cancer are a family history of the disease and certain gene mutations8.

If you have a first-degree relative, such as a sister or mother, who has had ovarian cancer, your own risk of developing the disease is higher9. A family history of breast cancer can also be a risk factor10. Furthermore, inherited mutations in specific genes, namely BRCA1 and BRCA2, are associated with a higher risk of ovarian and other cancers11. Genetic testing can determine if you carry these mutations, and your doctor or gynecologist can guide you on whether or not it is appropriate for you. A consultation with a genetic counselor is recommended in order to fully understand the implications of testing and to discuss the best course of action12.

It is worth noting that direct-to-consumer gene tests are available, but interpreting the results without the guidance of a counselor can be challenging13. If you discover that you have a high risk of ovarian cancer, your healthcare provider will carefully monitor your health and discuss potential preventive treatments tailored to your situation, weighing the risks and benefits of each approach14.

Average Risk: Maintaining a Lifelong Relationship with Your Gynecologist

Unfortunately, there is currently no accurate screening test for ovarian cancer that can catch the disease in its early stages before symptoms develop15. Tests like the Pap smear are ineffective in detecting signs of early ovarian cancer16. Consequently, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force does not recommend routine screening for women at average risk who have no symptoms17.

Nevertheless, it is crucial to maintain regular contact with your gynecologist throughout your life, especially after menopause, when the risk of developing gynecologic cancers is highest18. Dr. Kurnit emphasizes that women often mistakenly believe they no longer need to see a gynecologist after reaching menopause but recommends continuing all gynecologic care and routine checkups with a healthcare professional19.

Although the overall risk of ovarian cancer is relatively low, with lifetime odds of approximately 1.3%20, it can still cause concern. However, advancements in treatment options have improved outcomes, allowing individuals diagnosed with ovarian cancer to live better and longer lives21.

In conclusion, early detection of ovarian cancer remains a challenge, but by being aware of potential symptoms and risk factors, you can take proactive steps to protect your health. Building a strong relationship with your healthcare provider, monitoring for symptoms, and knowing your family history can empower you to take control of your well-being and catch ovarian cancer early if it does arise.


  1. Sources: “Spotting Ovarian Cancer Early: When to Speak Up and What to Expect” – WebMD↩︎

  2. Sources: “Spotting Ovarian Cancer Early: When to Speak Up and What to Expect” – WebMD↩︎

  3. Sources: “Spotting Ovarian Cancer Early: When to Speak Up and What to Expect” – WebMD↩︎

  4. Sources: “Spotting Ovarian Cancer Early: When to Speak Up and What to Expect” – WebMD↩︎

  5. Sources: “Spotting Ovarian Cancer Early: When to Speak Up and What to Expect” – WebMD↩︎

  6. Sources: “Spotting Ovarian Cancer Early: When to Speak Up and What to Expect” – WebMD↩︎

  7. Sources: “Spotting Ovarian Cancer Early: When to Speak Up and What to Expect” – WebMD↩︎

  8. Sources: “Spotting Ovarian Cancer Early: When to Speak Up and What to Expect” – WebMD↩︎

  9. Sources: “Spotting Ovarian Cancer Early: When to Speak Up and What to Expect” – WebMD↩︎

  10. Sources: “Spotting Ovarian Cancer Early: When to Speak Up and What to Expect” – WebMD↩︎

  11. Sources: “Spotting Ovarian Cancer Early: When to Speak Up and What to Expect” – WebMD↩︎

  12. Sources: “Spotting Ovarian Cancer Early: When to Speak Up and What to Expect” – WebMD↩︎

  13. Sources: “Spotting Ovarian Cancer Early: When to Speak Up and What to Expect” – WebMD↩︎

  14. Sources: “Spotting Ovarian Cancer Early: When to Speak Up and What to Expect” – WebMD↩︎

  15. Sources: “Spotting Ovarian Cancer Early: When to Speak Up and What to Expect” – WebMD↩︎

  16. Sources: “Spotting Ovarian Cancer Early: When to Speak Up and What to Expect” – WebMD↩︎

  17. Sources: “Spotting Ovarian Cancer Early: When to Speak Up and What to Expect” – WebMD↩︎

  18. Sources: “Spotting Ovarian Cancer Early: When to Speak Up and What to Expect” – WebMD↩︎

  19. Sources: “Spotting Ovarian Cancer Early: When to Speak Up and What to Expect” – WebMD↩︎

  20. Sources: “Spotting Ovarian Cancer Early: When to Speak Up and What to Expect” – WebMD↩︎

  21. Sources: “Spotting Ovarian Cancer Early: When to Speak Up and What to Expect” – WebMD↩︎