About risk factors
Most women with ovarian cancer do not have known risk factors. Still, it is important to know about the medically recognized risk factors. According to the American Cancer Society, several specific factors have been discovered that increase a woman's likelihood of developing one type of ovarian cancer called epithelial ovarian cancer. These risk factors do not apply to other, less common types of ovarian cancer, such as germ cell tumors and stromal tumors. If this assessment shows you have risk factors, you should discuss them with your health care provider. The risk of developing ovarian cancer increases with age. This cancer generally develops after menopause. Although most cases of ovarian cancer are diagnosed in older women, the disease can still occur in younger women.
Early cancers of the ovaries tend to cause symptoms that are relatively vague. They can be caused by many conditions that are not cancer. These symptoms include:
- General abdominal discomfort and/or pain (gas, indigestion, pressure, swelling, bloating, cramps)
- Nausea, diarrhea, constipation, or frequent urination
- Feeling of fullness even after a light meal
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling tired all the time
- Abnormal bleeding from the vagina
If you have these symptoms and you have risk factors for ovarian cancer, see your health care provider for a complete evaluation. If your risk is high, your provider may suggest more frequent evaluations. That way, if cancer develops, it can be detected and treated as early as possible. Some exams and tests that your health care provider might do are:
Pelvic exam. This exam is done to feel the uterus, vagina, ovaries, fallopian tubes, bladder, and rectum to find any abnormality in their shape or size. (A Pap test is used to find cancer of the cervix. It is often done along with the pelvic exam, but it is not a reliable way to find or diagnose ovarian cancer.)
Transvaginal ultrasound. This test uses sound waves to create a picture of the uterus and ovaries to try to determine whether a growth is likely to be a cancer or a fluid-filled cyst.
CA-125. Blood tests for ovarian cancer may include measuring the amount of CA-125. This is a protein that may be higher in many women with ovarian cancer. (This test is not always accurate because some other diseases can increase the blood levels of CA-125, producing a false positive. Some ovarian cancers may not produce enough CA-125, producing a false negative.)
Genetic testing. If you have close family members who have had breast or ovarian cancer, your provider may talk to you about genetic testing. This will tell you if you have a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. Mutations in these genes have been linked to increased risk for breast and ovarian cancer.