Women's Health

Ovarian Cancer: Is it Asymptomatic in the Early Stages?

Key Takeaways

  • Only three percent of women in the world who are diagnosed with some form of cancer have ovarian cancer.
  • The symptoms of ovarian cancer are very similar to those of endometriosis
  • Regular testing done at the gynecologist can discover ovarian cancer in its early stages, and this will allow for more treatment options as well as a greater chance for survival.

Only three percent of women in the world who are diagnosed with some form of cancer have ovarian cancer. This type of cancer has the highest percentage of deaths in the female population. Every cancer starts when the growth of cells becomes abnormal and out of control. Ovarian cancer begins in the ovaries, which are made of mostly three different types of cells. Every cell type can grow a different form of cancer. 

Common types of cancerous ovarian tumors

While there are more than 30 different types of ovarian cancers, each is classified by the type of cell from which it originates. The three most common cells from which cancer in the ovaries originates are:

  • Surface epithelium cells: Epithelial tumors are formed on the outer surface of the ovaries. About 90 percent of tumors that form in the ovaries are epithelial tumors. Types of this cancer include serous, endometrioid, clear cell, mucinous, undifferentiated, and unclassified.
  • Germ cells: Germ cell tumors are formed where the eggs are produced. Only about one or two in every 100 cases of ovarian cancer are germ cell cancers. These tumors originate from the egg-making cells in the ovaries. Along with these, there are also non cancerous forms of germ cell tumors that are also known as dermoid cysts or mature teratoma.
  • Stromal cells: Stromal tumors affect the structural tissues in the ovaries. They develop from connective tissue cells in the ovaries. These cells work to hold the organ (ovary) together and help produce hormones. 

Risk factors for developing ovarian cancer

There are several risk factors for developing ovarian cancer. While these risk factors do not indicate that someone will definitely get the disease, they increase a woman’s risk towards having it. Some of these risks include: being middle aged or older; having family members who have or had ovarian cancer; if you have had a genetic mutation; if you have had breast, colon, cervical cancer or melanoma; if you have Jewish background; if you have never given birth or have had trouble becoming pregnant; and if you have a history of endometriosis.

Some research has also shown that women who take estrogen without progesterone for 10 or more years could also be at a potential risk of developing ovarian cancer.

Symptoms of ovarian cancer

The symptoms of ovarian cancer are very similar to those of endometriosis. Ovarian cancer can cause painful symptoms, even in the very first stages of the disease. The most common symptoms of ovarian cancer are:

  • Pelvic pains
  • Bloating
  • Abdominal pain and back pain
  • Irregular and abnormal vaginal bleeding between periods
  • Trouble with eating and a feeling of being full
  • Loss of appetite
  • Urinary problems

Some of these symptoms might be regularly present during your period and are normal, but if you notice that any of these symptoms are out of control, you should visit your gynecologist for tests and examinations.

There are also less common symptoms that could indicate ovarian cancer which include:

  • Upset stomach
  • Fatigue
  • Painful sexual intercourse
  • Constipation or inability to pass bowel movements
  • Weight loss

Again, many of these symptoms occur in women who are perfectly healthy during their periods or ovulation. But if you notice that you feel more pain than usual, go to your doctor immediately. Sometimes women may confuse the symptoms with some other condition, such as period irregularity, and they will not ask for a doctor’s help. Ovarian cancer is a very dangerous type of cancer that can easily and quickly spread to nearby organs. So it is best to be sure that nothing is seriously wrong and check with your doctor. 

Diagnosing ovarian cancer 

Ovarian cancer can be diagnosed with regular visits to the gynecologist (once or twice a year), but only 20 percent of the women that have ovarian cancer are diagnosed in its early stages. In very rare cases, ovarian cancer is found with a pap test, but the most effective way to diagnose this disease is through pelvic examinations with ultrasound screenings of the uterus and ovaries.

The ovaries are small organs, and ovarian cancer can spread beyond them in a very short time frame. Ovarian cancer can also be diagnosed with a blood test called CA-125. CA-125 is a protein in the blood that women with ovarian cancer have at very high levels. However, not every case of high levels of CA-125 means that the woman has ovarian cancer.

Treating ovarian cancer

In almost every case of ovarian cancer, the womb needs to be removed from the body. During surgery, doctors target the cancer by removing any affected tissue as well as the cancerous tissue. Unfortunately there will remain a risk that the cancer will return on another part of the body.

Chemotherapy can also be effective in the early stages of the disease. Patients can control the symptoms by using painkillers and food supplements or vitamins. Ovarian cancer can be treated in a number of ways depending on the stage of the cancer and how far it has spread. Most treatments mainly include chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgery to deal with the cancer.

Chemotherapy is a treatment method that uses special medicines and a specific dose to either kill the cancer or reduce the size and spread of it. The treatment can be in the form of medicines you take or drugs taken through the veins or sometimes both. Radiation therapy includes the use of high energy rays to kill the cancer. These treatments are provided by different specialists and doctors who are on the patient’s medical team. Doctors who treat ovarian cancer include the following:

  • Gynecologic oncologists are responsible for treating cancers that are related to a woman’s reproductive system. 
  • Medical oncologists are responsible for the treatment of the cancer with the use of medicines. 
  • Surgeons are responsible for the surgical removal of cancerous tissues or the cancerous tumors. 
  • Radiation oncologists are responsible for providing treatment of cancer with the help of radiation techniques. 

Is ovarian cancer asymptomatic in its early stages?

The answer to the first question is, yes, sometimes ovarian cancer is asymptomatic in its early stages. Many women think they are experiencing normal pain caused by their period or ovulation, but they are actually feeling the symptoms of this disease. Visiting your gynecologist for regular examinations is the best way to protect your fertility health and overall health. Regular testing done at the gynecologist can also discover ovarian cancer in its early stages, and this will allow for more treatment options as well as a greater chance for survival.