We at Bustle love giving you tips for how to tap into your sexual potential and troubleshoot when things aren’t going your way in the bedroom. But what about finding solutions to those stressful sexual health situations that inevitably crop up when you’re getting down? Emma Kaywin, a Brooklyn-based sexual health writer and activist, is here to calm your nerves and answer your questions. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions will remain anonymous. This week’s topic: symptoms of ovarian cancer to watch out for — and how to minimize your risk of ovarian cancer in the first place.
Q: I’m adopted, and I recently went out and found my birth mother. I was super upset to learn that she had died of ovarian cancer a couple years ago, and apparently her sister also has it and their mother died from it too. All sadness of not being able to meet my mother aside, I’m now freaked out. All this time I had this ticking cancer time bomb inside me that I didn’t know about. How will I know if I have it too? Like, are there any symptoms or signs of ovarian cancer I should look out for? I don’t want this hanging over my head for the rest of my life. Please help.
A: I’m so sorry, what an intense way to learn about your family’s medical history. The good news is that knowing that you’re at risk for ovarian cancer is the best thing you can do to protect yourself. I’m serious; catching it early greatly improves your chances of beating this thing.
Please note: it’s important to work with your doctor on this. You can’t diagnose ovarian cancer by yourself, and you definitely can’t cure it by yourself (sorry faith healers, the research shows that doesn’t work). So if you notice any of these symptoms, don’t panic (because it’s probably something else) but do talk to your doctor to make sure you get all the tests and treatment you need to stay healthy.
What Causes Ovarian Cancer?
Unfortunately, researchers still aren’t completely clear on what causes ovarian cancer. I mean, they know how cancer starts — normal cells become abnormal through genetic mutation, start growing way faster than normal cells, and band together into tumors — but they don’t know why it rears its head when it does.
However, they do know that some people have genes that make it more likely that they will get ovarian cancer. These are the breast cancer gene 1 (BRCA1) or 2 (BRCA2), as well as the genes that cause Lynch syndrome. You may want to get your genome sequenced to find out for yourself whether you're a carrier. Other risk factors include age (most people don’t get this cancer until they are in their fifties), if you started your period before you age 12, or if you smoke.
Why Is It So Hard To Diagnose?
It’s actually extremely difficult to know you have ovarian cancer, which is one of the reasons why so many people don’t learn they have it until far down the line. In fact, this disease is so hard to identify through the usual means (getting a symptom, going to the doctor who identifies that symptom as coming from a certain disease) that a new study is actually training dogs to be able to smell ovarian cancer. Only around 20 percent of people catch their ovarian cancer in the early stages, when it’s much easier to treat.
Why is it hard to know if you have this cancer, besides the fact that it’s messing with a very internal part of you (your ovaries) that you never see? It’s because most people don’t even have symptoms in the early stages, and when people do start getting symptoms, it’s hard to link them to ovarian cancer. That’s because all of the symptoms of ovarian cancer are also signs of other common problems. Basically, the symptoms are too generic for a doctor to automatically know to test you for ovarian cancer.
What Are The Possible Symptoms?
Because ovarian cancer is so hard to catch, it's important to be aware of the symptoms you should be looking out for. This is not license to freak out that you have cancer every time your tummy rumbles. The key to most of these symptoms being worrisome is persistence — as in, they happen for a long time. If you need to pee a lot one day, chances are you just hydrated well the night before — not that you have cancer. If you get pelvic pain for a couple days, you could have your period or you could have eaten something that didn’t agree with you. But if you notice that part of your daily life has become needing to pee all the time or dealing with a constantly painful abdomen, then you might want to talk to your doctor about getting tested for ovarian cancer.
So keep these in the back of your mind, because you might be the one telling your doctor to test you for ovarian cancer down the line.
This, and many of the other symptoms associated with ovarian cancer, have to do with your body accommodating growing tumors on your ovaries. You have limited space down there, and so the addition of a tumor is going to cause everything else to have less room. Luckily, there are many other reasons why you may be feeling larger or more waterlogged than usual. The most common reason you feel bloated is actually your period, but if you’ve felt bloated for all or even most days within the past three weeks, it could be an indication that you should get tested for ovarian cancer.
2. Suddenly Feeling Full Really Easily
This kind of goes along with bloating, since when you’re bloated your appetite can get all wonky. But if you’re suddenly feeling full really fast, that might be an indication that something is awry in your lower parts. Specifically, a tumor could be pushing against your stomach, making you feel full earlier.
3. Unexplained Changes In Weight
It’s pretty normal to oscillate within a set weight range based on your cycle, your lifestyle, or other factors like stress. But if you notice a change in your weight that isn’t explained by anything you’re doing, it might be an indication that you have ovarian cancer. Weight gain can be in great part attributed to the actual weight of a tumor, if you have one. On the other hand, weight loss can be attributed to eating less from having a suppressed appetite.
4. Pelvic Pain
There are many medical reasons why you may be experiencing pelvic pain. All of them suck, and all of them can be treated differently by medicine. One of the reasons is ovarian cancer, but it’s not usually the first one doctors test for. So if you have this symptom and some others on this list, make sure you’re tested for ovarian cancer — just in case.
5. Needing To Pee All The Time
It’s natural for you to need to pee somewhat regularly, based on how much fluid you intake. However, there are lots of medical things that can cause you to experience what is called urgency (the need to pee all of a sudden), or frequency (the need to pee way more often than usual). One of these reasons is ovarian cancer.
6. Unexplained Spotting And/Or A Heavier Period
There are lots of reasons why you might get bleeding (called spotting) between your periods. However, one of those reasons is, unfortunately, ovarian cancer. So if you suddenly notice that you’re spotting when you haven’t done anything that usually causes that, or you notice that your period is getting heavier than usual all of a sudden, talk to your doctor about getting tested for ovarian cancer.
Is There Anything You Can Do To Prevent Ovarian Cancer?
There’s no sure-fire way to prevent ovarian cancer, but there are some things you can do to keep yourself healthy.
1. Get On The Pill
Some studies have found that if you take oral birth control pills for a long period of time (I’m talking over 15 years), you’re up to 50 percent less likely to end up with ovarian cancer. Your gynecologist can work with you to figure out if taking the pill is right for you.
2. Don't Smoke Cigarettes
Smoking tobacco has been shown to increase the likelihood of ovarian cancer, as well as lots of other types of cancers. So if you are currently a smoker (or vaper), try quitting. Your health will thank you.
3. Go Vegan
Multiple studies have found that people on a vegan diet have a lower risk of cancer — especially reproductive cancers. Vegan women have a 34 percent lower rates of female-specific cancers such as breast, cervical, and ovarian cancer.
4. Get Pregnant & Breastfeed
Of course, preventing ovarian cancer is not a good reason to have a baby, but the research has found that you’re less likely to get ovarian cancer the more times you’ve been pregnant and carried a baby to term. Also, if you do end up having a baby, the longer you breastfeed, the lower your risk gets.
5. Pay Close Attention To Your Body
I don’t mean you should freak out every time you feel one of these ovarian cancer symptoms. However, it’s a good idea to keep track of how you’re feeling — and this is true for all medical conditions, not just cervical cancer. Some people keep symptom journals that they share with their doctors.
6. Create A Good Relationship With Your Doctor
It’s always a great idea to choose a doctor who you trust — who you can call freaking out in the middle of the night when you think you have cancer, and who will also take your symptoms seriously to check you for all potential conditions. If you think you are predisposed to ovarian cancer (or anything really) based on your genes or your lifestyle, pick a doctor who takes that seriously.
The Bottom Line
Ovarian cancer is no joke, but if you catch this disease early, it can save your life. So file away this symptom list for when you’re trying to figure out why you don’t feel well. Let’s hope you never need to use it, but it’s better to know earlier rather than later so you can get the care and treatment you need to live a full and happy life.
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