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The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2017, 22,440 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer and 14,080 women will die from the disease. Ovarian cancer deaths account for more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system. However, the rate of ovarian cancer diagnosis has been slowly decreasing over the last 20 years.

Ovarian cancer begins in the ovaries. Ovaries are reproductive glands that only women have to produce eggs. The ovaries are made up of three different types of cells and all three cell types can develop into a different type of tumor.

It is important for women to know the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer so that the cancer can be detected early and the patient can begin treatment. Symptoms include:

  • Bloating
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
  • Urinary symptoms such as urgency or frequency

“The problem with ovarian cancer is that it is often diagnosed at a late stage,” says Michael Birrer, M.D., Ph.D., director of the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. “The symptoms are often associated with more common and less serious conditions, and most women wait to get it checked out.”

Birrer, a medical oncologist, confirms that when ovarian cancer is detected at an early stage the cancer remains confined to the ovary and is often more easily treated.  “Frequency of the symptoms should help women know when to consider seeking additional help from their doctor.”

If you have symptoms similar to those of ovarian cancer almost daily for more than a few weeks, and they can't be explained by other more common conditions, report them to your health care professional, preferably a gynecologist, right away. Other symptoms can include: fatigue, upset stomach, back pain, constipation, pain during sex, menstrual changes and abdominal swelling with weight loss.

“I always say that it’s best for women to be in tune with their bodies,” says Birrer.

Physicians typically provide a physical exam which includes a pelvic exam to look for an enlarged ovary, they may refer you to a gynecologic oncologist who may conduct additional testing including a computed tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or ultrasound.

Many women mistakenly believe a Pap test, a cervical smear test, can detect ovarian cancer.  In some unusual cases it may, but so far there is no reliable screening test for ovarian cancer.  Better ways to screen for ovarian cancer are currently being researched.