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Ovarian cancer is difficult to diagnose, and often goes undetected. Here’s what you should know.



Raising awareness about ovarian cancer, the second most common gynecological cancer.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ovarian cancer causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system.

September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, a good time to shine the spotlight on this often-deadly disease and learn how to protect yourself and those you care about.

When diagnosed early, ovarian cancer can be treated and managed. The key to success: catching it early. Remember, never hesitate to contact your health care provider with questions or concerns.

Many Symptoms Mirror Common Illness

Part of the reason ovarian cancer is the cause of a disproportionately large number of gynecologic cancer-related deaths is due to its diagnostic difficulty; there’s no test currently available that can reliably detect the disease at an early stage, when it’s most easily treatable. Making matters worse, many symptoms of ovarian cancer resemble other common illnesses, which means it can be easy to miss or misdiagnose.

Regardless, the most important thing is to listen to your body and see a doctor if any of the following signs and symptoms occur for two weeks or longer:

  • Vaginal bleeding or abnormal discharge from your vagina
  • Pain or pressure in the pelvic area
  • Abdominal or back pain
  • Bloating
  • Difficulty eating, or feeling full too quickly
  • More frequent or urgent need to urinate and/or constipation

Screening for ovarian cancer

According to the CDC, there are no simple, reliable tests for women without signs or symptoms of ovarian cancer. The American Cancer Society cites the three most common screenings and tests:

Pelvic exam While this exam can find some female cancers at an early stage, most early ovarian tumors are difficult or impossible to feel.

Transvaginal ultrasound (TVUS) This test uses sound waves to examine the uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries. It can help find a tumor in the ovary, however, advanced imaging or a biopsy is needed to tell if it is cancerous or benign.

The CA-125 blood test looks for high levels of a protein called CA-125 in the blood, as any women with ovarian cancer (though not all) have elevated CA-125 levels. However, high levels of CA-125 are more often caused by conditions including endometriosis and pelvic infections.

Risk factors

While there is no way to know for sure if you will get ovarian cancer, several factors may increase a woman’s risk for the disease. Many of these risk factors are genetic, and not related to behavior. Below are the most common:

  • Being middle-aged or older
  • Having close family members (such as your mother, sister, aunt, or grandmother) who have had ovarian cancer
  • Having the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, or one associated with Lynch syndrome
  • Having had breast, uterine, or colorectal (colon) cancer
  • Having an Eastern European or Ashkenazi Jewish background
  • Having endometriosis
  • Having never given birth


Ovarian cancer treatment usually involves surgery and chemotherapy.

Why awareness matters

Treatment has mostly remained unchanged for over 40 years. Part of the reason newer and more effective treatments are lacking is funding: ovarian cancer is particularly underfunded and understudied compared with more well-known cancers.

Horizon encourages women to make an annual appointment with their OBGYN specialist and talk with relatives about any family history of ovarian cancer.

Horizon Health News is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.