Ovarian cancer is one of those sneaky cancers—it doesn’t give a lot of signs that it’s around. That’s why annual check ups are so important for women.

“Ovarian cancer is typically diagnosed by finding a mass during a physical pelvic exam. Sometimes women come in with pelvic pain, a change in bowel habits or a sense of fullness, but the symptoms of ovarian cancer are non-specific and hard to identify, making an annual pelvic exam especially important,” says a TMH gynecologist.

Symptoms of ovarian cancer

According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms often don’t start until the cancer has advanced, and can mimic other ailments such as constipation and irritable bowel syndrome. Symptoms of late-stage ovarian cancer include abdominal bloating, quickly feeling full after eating, pelvic discomfort, constipation, frequent urination or weight loss. It’s easy to see why these symptoms would be missed or confused as something else.

Prevention tips

Approximately 1 in 70 women will suffer from ovarian cancer in their lifetimes. According to a TMH gynecologist, the risk is higher for post-menopausal women.

“Sometimes women assume they don’t need a pelvic exam after menopause. That’s not the case. It’s even recommended for women who have had hysterectomies,” adds a TMH gynecologist.

As with all cancers, adopting a healthy lifestyle of a nutritious diet low in sugar and fat and a habit of regular exercise is one of the best ways to prevent ovarian cancer.

“If you’ve had a hormone-based cancer, such as breast cancer, your risk for ovarian cancer is higher. There are genetic mutations that can lead to hormonally sensitive cancers. It’s smart to discuss your particular risk with your physician,” says a TMH gynecologist.

If you’ve tested positive for the BRCA (BReast CAncer) gene, or have a strong family history of breast or prostate cancer, you could be at a higher risk. To dig deeper, Summers says your physician can run more tests and schedule regular pelvic ultrasounds if you’ve been deemed high-risk.

Should you get a CA125 test?

“The CA 125 cancer antigen test is not a very good test when it comes to screening for ovarian cancer,” states a TMH gynecologist.

That’s because while a woman with ovarian cancer could likely have an elevated CA 125, she doesn’t always. An elevated CA 125 can also indicate other conditions, such as endometriosis, cirrhosis of the liver, uterine fibroids, pregnancy and even normal menstruation. For these reasons, the CA 125 is unreliable as a screening test. Even for high-risk women, its usefulness is questionable.

Treating ovarian cancer

Common treatment for ovarian cancer is first surgery to remove not just the ovaries but the fallopian tubes and uterus as well. Surgery is often followed by radiation and/or chemotherapy.

“The cure rate for ovarian cancer in its early stages is pretty high. That’s why I strongly urge women to get a pelvic exam every year. When we catch it early, we save lives,” concludes a TMH gynecologist.