When Your Symptoms Are More Than Painful Digestion

September 21, 2016

If you Google “ovarian health,” one of the first few results probably relates to fertility. And that makes sense. Women who are trying to get pregnant are likely more interested in the health of their reproductive organs.

In reality, though, women should be aware of their ovaries much before and long after their average childbearing years. Understanding how your body works is a part of maintaining your overall health for the long term, and it can even improve your chances of detecting serious health conditions like ovarian cancer.


What Makes Ovarian Cancer So Deadly?

An estimated 22,000 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2016, and roughly 14,000 of them will not survive — making it the deadliest gynecologic cancer and the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths in women. These startling statistics are due to the fact that ovarian cancer is often hard to catch in its earliest stages, when survival rates are at their highest.

It’s called the “silent killer” for a reason: Most doctors won’t recommend a woman for a screening unless she displays symptoms that raise red flags — making awareness even more important.

Unfortunately, the symptoms of ovarian cancer are quite commonplace, and they include:

  • Bloating or upset stomach.
  • Pelvic pain, abdominal pain, or back pain.
  • Constipation or urgent needs to urinate.
  • Painful sex.
  • Trouble eating.
  • Menstrual changes and abnormal bleeding.

If these sound familiar, it’s because they are. Symptoms like constipation, stomach pain, and bloating make irritable bowel syndrome a common scapegoat for ovarian cancer. Not to mention, most women experience many of these symptoms during their monthly menstrual cycles.

However, the key difference is that IBS symptoms will come and go (as will normal menstrual pains), but cancer symptoms will get worse over time. So if your doctor suggests IBS or chalks it up to normal menstrual side effects, ask yourself whether your symptoms have been intermittent or whether they’ve continued to progress.

If it’s the latter, you should keep pressing the issue with your doctor, making sure to give her all the information she needs to assess your risk levels. For example, some factors put you in a higher risk category, and you need to make your doctor aware of them. They include:

  • Being middle-aged or older.
  • Having a family history of gynecologic cancers.
  • Possessing genetic abnormalities such as the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations.
  • Having been diagnosed with other gynecologic cancers, melanoma, or endometriosis in the past.
  • Coming from Eastern European Jewish (Ashkenazi) descent.
  • Having trouble becoming pregnant.

However, you’re not off the hook if you don’t fall into one of these categories. For example, although ovarian cancer is most commonly diagnosed in women over 50, it’s also known to affect younger women. From 2009 to 2013, about 24 percent of cases were in women between the ages of 55 and 64. However, about 6 percent of cases were in women aged 35 to 44, and roughly 5 percent were in women under 34 (some even in their 20s).

Always be aware of changes in your body, and don’t assume prolonged bloating, constipation, and pelvic pain is normal. No one knows your body better than you do. If you feel a change, monitor your symptoms closely and bring this log to your doctor’s appointment. All in all, if you have a solid understanding of what’s normal for you, early detection is possible — and so is survival.