Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson

Listen to your body to detect ovarian cancer

9/9/2021 by Marcia O'Brien, M.D.


Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cancer in women, accounting for 3% of cancer in women. One in 70 women will develop ovarian cancer. The typical age of diagnosis is between 55 and 65. Ovarian cancer is most often diagnosed in the later stages, and it's associated with vague symptoms.

Symptoms can include:

  • Abdominal bloating.
  • Increased abdominal girth.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Indigestion.
  • Anorexia (loss of appetite).
  • Feeling full after eating a small amount of food.
  • Weight loss.
  • Pelvic pressure.
  • Cramping.
  • Back pain.
  • Vaginal bleeding.
  • Urinary frequency or urgency.
  • Change in bowel habits.
  • Fatigue.
  • Pain during intercourse.
  • Leg swelling.

The risk for developing ovarian cancer is associated with several factors. The most common factor is advancing age. Women with a history of infertility and infertility treatment (assisted reproductive technology), endometriosis and postmenopausal hormone therapy are at a slightly increased risk. Women at the greatest risk are those with known heritable genetic conditions, including the BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 breast cancer genes and hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer, also known as Lynch syndrome.

The risk for ovarian cancer increases three to six times for women with:

  • A diagnosis of premenopausal breast cancer under 40.
  • A diagnosis of breast cancer under 50.
  • A close relative ― grandparent, parent, sibling or child ― with breast or ovarian cancer diagnosed at any age.
  • A first-degree relative ― mother, sister or daughter ― with ovarian cancer.
  • A family history of breast cancer under 50 in two or more close relatives.
  • A family history of ovarian cancer diagnosed at any age.
  • Ashkenazi Jewish heritage.

No guidelines for ovarian cancer screening are available for the general population. To reduce their risk, most women simply need to follow a healthy lifestyle and recommended wellness principles:

  • Weight
    Achieve and maintain a normal body weight with a body mass index of 19–24.
  • Exercise
    Take part in 30 minutes or more of a moderate intensity activity five to seven days per week, with 10,000 steps per day.
  • Diet
    Consume a low-fat diet that is more plant-based than animal-based, with minimal processed food.
  • Sleep
    Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night.
  • Stress
    Take time to recharge and reduce your stress.
  • Substance exposure
    Stop all use of tobacco products, avoid or stop vaping, avoid or stop drug use, and consume little to no alcohol.

For women with an increased risk, a heritable genetic conditions consult and testing are the first steps. For women with the aforementioned heritable genetic conditions, individualized screening may include laboratory testing for CA-125, which looks for certain proteins in your blood, and a pelvic ultrasound. Other recommendations for procedures that reduce risk include surgical removal of the uterus, one or both breasts, one or both ovaries, and/or one or both fallopian tubes.

Body self-awareness is key to maintenance of good health. Listen to your body and be aware of symptoms. Early detection of ovarian cancer is key to the best possible outcome. If something is off, contact your provider.

Marcia O'Brien, M.D., is a physician in the Department of Family Medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. She practices the full spectrum of family medicine, including hospital medicine, newborn nursery and obstetric care at Mayo Family Clinic Northeast.