If you experience bloating, have pain or discomfort in your belly or feel full after eating a small amount, you may assume you have heartburn, gas or another digestive problem.
That may indeed be the case. But if you’re a woman over 55, you should check in with your gynecologist, because those symptoms can also be warning signs of ovarian cancer, says Eli Serur, a gynecologic oncologist and chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Staten Island University Hospital in New York.
Studies show that ovarian cancer is often misdiagnosed as another condition, at least initially.
“I can’t tell you how many times there are delays,” Serur says. “A patient goes to their internist, and they give you a proton pump inhibitor or antacid for indigestion. You can lose valuable time in terms of coming up with an ovarian cancer diagnosis.”
Ovarian cancer is rare, but it ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women, accounting for more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system. The risk of a woman’s getting ovarian cancer is about 1 in 78 in her lifetime. It affects women of all ages, but it’s most common after menopause. More than two-thirds of those diagnosed are 55 or older.
You’re at higher risk if you have a family history of ovarian or breast cancer, if you have inherited mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, if you have endometriosis or if you’re obese. Early menstruation (before age 12) and late menopause also bump up risk.
Risk Factors for Ovarian Cancer
- Women who never had children
- Family history of breast or ovarian cancer
- Inherited genetic mutations of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene
- Early menstruation or late menopause
- Giving birth after age 35 or never having a full-term pregnancy
Ovarian cancer symptoms may be subtle
Ovarian cancer has sometimes been called the silent killer, because it’s often not detected until it’s too late to be cured. Plus, there’s no good screening test for it, like a mammogram for breast cancer or a colonoscopy for colorectal cancer. About 70 percent of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer already have advanced-stage disease.