Letter blocks spelling out ovarian cancer.

Why Ovarian Cancer Symptoms are Easily Missed

June 17, 2021

Loyola Medicine oncologist Margaret Liotta, DOBy Margarret Liotta, DO, Obstetrics and Gynecology

Dr. Liotta specializes in the treatment and research of gynecological cancers, including ovarian, cervical, uterine and vulva cancers. In this blog, she answers frequently asked questions about ovarian cancer.

How common is ovarian cancer and who gets it?

Ovarian cancer makes up about three percent of all cancers among women.

It most frequently develops after menopause, and half of ovarian cancers are diagnosed in women age 63 years or older.

Women of all ages are at risk of developing ovarian cancer, but it is rare among women younger than 40. The cause of ovarian cancer is not known but age and the lifetime frequency of ovulation are the most common risk factors.

Ovarian cancer most frequently develops in women 55 to 64 years old and in women who began menstruating before age 12 or reached menopause after age 50. Higher risk also is associated with:

What are the symptoms?

Ovarian cancer is called a silent disease because symptoms are absent or unrecognized. It does produce symptoms, but the symptoms may be vague and can be caused by more common, less serious conditions. Pay attention to these symptoms:

  • I get full too fast and/or my stomach aches
  • I’m bloated for no reason
  • I’m spotting but I’ve already gone through menopause; or I’m having heavier than usual vaginal bleeding
  • I have to go to the bathroom more frequently and urgently than usual.
  • I feel pain or pressure in my pelvis
  • My back hurts for no clear reason
  • I’ve lost weight and I wasn’t trying to
  • If you have these symptoms for more than two weeks and they are unusual for you, talk to your gynecologist or primary care doctor right away. Don’t hesitate to discuss worrisome symptoms with your doctor.

How do I reduce my risk?

Most ovarian cancers just happen with no known cause. About 10 percent are genetically linked. If you know you have a genetic risk or family history, work with your doctor to find the best options for prevention.

Also, Loyola’s cancer risk assessment and prevention program can fully evaluate your cancer risk, discuss available clinical trials and make recommendations for prevention or care.

For other women in general, taking oral birth control that contains progesterone, having multiple full-term pregnancies or otherwise reducing ovulation can lower your chances of developing ovarian cancer.

How curable is it?

Some types of ovarian cancer are more easily found early and so have a better chance of being treated successfully.

There are three types of ovarian cancer:

  1. Epithelial ovarian cancer is by far the most common, accounting for 85 to 90% of ovarian cancers. Epithelial cancer develops on the thin, outer surface of the ovaries. It is usually discovered in a later stage.
  2. Sex cord stromal cancer originates in ovarian tissue that contains hormone-producing cells. These stromal tumors can be found and treated at an earlier stage than epithelial tumors.
  3. Germ cell cancer begins in the ovaries’ egg-producing cells. This rare ovarian cancer tends to affect younger women. It may be diagnosed and treated earlier than epithelial cancer.

New, promising ways are being developed to treat ovarian cancer. Loyola Medicine physicians and researchers are studying ways to use the patient’s own immune system to fight cancer.

In a clinical research trial at Loyola, women with advanced ovarian cancer were given a “vaccine” created from their own tumor cells. The vaccine signals the patient’s immune system to attack and kill cancer cells. It’s another step in developing personalized medicine to fight cancer.

What type of screening is used to find ovarian cancer?

Currently, there is no recommended screening test. The FDA has warned that tests being marketed as screening for ovarian cancer are not reliable or effective. Researchers are developing and testing ways to screen for ovarian cancer so it can be found and treated as early as possible.

Margaret Liotta, DO, is a gynecological oncologist at Loyola Medicine. Her clinical interests include cervical cancerminimally invasive surgeryovarian cancerpelvic surgery, robotic surgery, single port laparoscopy, uterine cancer and vulva cancer.

Dr. Liotta earned her medical degree at Des Moines University College of Osteopathic Medicine. She completed a residency in obstetrics & gynecology at Loyola University Medical Center and a fellowship in obstetrics & gynecology: gynecological oncology at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.

Book an appointment today to see Dr. Liotta by self-scheduling an in-person or virtual appointment using myLoyola.