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Five silent symptoms of ovarian cancer

female wearing grey t-shirt holding abdomen

As with other cancers, the earlier the diagnosis of ovarian cancer is given, the greater the chance can be for a good outcome. However, as one University of Alabama at Birmingham doctor explains, an early diagnosis can be hard to achieve as most women have few if any symptoms.

That is why Teresa Boitano, M.D., assistant professor in UAB’s Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, says the disease is known as the “silent killer.” It is estimated that nearly 20,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2023, so Boitano encourages women to be mindful of these five silent symptoms to increase the chances of early detection.

Bloating

Bloating can be a common symptom for some women during their monthly cycle, but most do not know that it can be a symptom of ovarian cancer.

“The feeling can occur frequently or can be persistent and can often lead to a woman feeling like she gets full quickly after eating only a small amount,” Boitano said.

If it cannot be associated around the time of a cycle or appears to be getting worse, it might be time to visit your primary care physician or gynecologist to look at potential causes of the bloating.  

Abdominal or pelvic pain

A persistent pain, or one that occurs most days, in the stomach or pelvic region is another silent symptom to be aware of. Boitano explains that it is usually a new type of pain that could get progressively worse.  

“Women also might notice that they have increased pain with intercourse that is new,” she said.

Fatigue

The third silent symptom is a feeling of tiredness, and one that does not improve with getting more rest.

“If you find yourself feeling fatigued for days to weeks, and that power nap or extra cappuccino doesn’t seem to provide the pick-me-up, talk to your medical provider to be sure that it is not something more serious,” Boitano said.

Changes in bowel habits

If a woman starts having sudden issues with either constipation or diarrhea, it can be a sign of ovarian cancer. Boitano says it usually persists for an extended period and is not a routine issue a woman has been dealing with.

Frequent urination

The last silent symptom of ovarian cancer is some women will feel that they have to use the bathroom more often than normal.  

Boitano says some patients can experience a burning or pressure sensation during urination.

Next steps

Boitano urges women to visit a health care provider if they have persistent, severe or worsening issues from any of the five silent symptoms.   

“While it hopefully will not be ovarian cancer, it is important for a woman to be evaluated if she is noticing differences in her body,” she said. “Depending on the symptoms and exam, next steps with the health care provider may include laboratory evaluation and imaging.” 

Boitano says it is essential to raise awareness about ovarian cancer and its symptoms. If a woman is experiencing abnormal symptoms, or knows of a friend experiencing one of the silent symptoms, it is important to have a conversation, though it may be difficult, and encourage medical evaluation. 

“Education and advocacy will empower women to recognize possible symptoms, take control of their health and pursue medical attention swiftly when indicated,” Boitano said.

To schedule an appointment with a UAB Medicine provider, call 205-934-9999. Learn about the Comprehensive Ovarian Cancer Program and services provided at the UAB O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center here.

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