In the battle against cancer, catching early symptoms of the disease can be crucial. “Early diagnosis of cancer focuses on detecting symptomatic patients as early as possible so they have the best chance for successful treatment,” explains the World Health Organization (WHO). “When cancer care is delayed or inaccessible there is a lower chance of survival, greater problems associated with treatment, and higher costs of care.”
Some warning signs of cancer are more familiar than others. An irregular mole may be a red flag for skin cancer, while a lump in the breast could indicate breast cancer. Other symptoms are less well known—and some cancers manifest in subtle, or even undetectable, ways.
One change in your bathroom habits can be a sign of ovarian cancer, which can present with vague symptoms and accounts for more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system, reports the American Cancer Society. Read on to find out what it is.
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If ovarian cancer is discovered early, it increases the patient’s chance of survival. But because the warning signs may not be easily identifiable, the disease is often not found until it is more advanced.
“In its early stages, ovarian cancer may not present any noticeable signs,” says Healthline. “When symptoms do appear, they are often the kinds of symptoms you normally associate with more common conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and urinary tract infections.”
Problems with bowel habits that seem like IBS, constipation, or diarrhea can be an indicator of ovarian cancer.
Why do the ovaries have an effect on the bowels? “The ovaries are attached to the uterus and dangle off the uterus, meaning they’re free-floating in the pelvis,” Marilyn Huang, MD, tells Everyday Health. The small bowel floats in the pelvic cavity, she says, explaining that as ovarian cancer grows, it can attach to the intestines and effect their function.
This can result in gastrointestinal symptoms that can seem like IBS. According to WebMD, both IBS and ovarian cancer can result in stomach pain, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. (Note that these types of changes in bowel habits can also be caused by numerous other conditions, including premenstrual syndrome (PMS), endometriosis, viral gastroenteritis, and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), among others.)
With so many reasons for a change in bowel habits, it can be difficult to know when they might be a sign of something serious. Always check with your health provider if you have symptoms that come on suddenly or seem abnormal. Complicating matters is the fact that, as Barbara A. Goff, MD told Oncology News, “Most women with ovarian cancer have previous abdominal or gastrointestinal (GI) complaints, and diagnoses are often delayed because neither patients nor physicians recognize these early warning signs.”
It can be helpful to look for other symptoms that may clarify a potential diagnosis. For example, IBS usually begins in early adulthood, according to the Mount Sinai Health System: “It is less likely to begin in older people above 50 years of age.” Should the symptoms of IBS suddenly arise in an older adult, this can be cause for concern.
PMS may cause constipation or diarrhea, but this “tends to happen in a predictable way,” write the experts at Mount Sinai. “Unlike ovarian cancer, it should come and go with your menstrual cycle.”
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Although the early symptoms of ovarian cancer can be difficult to detect, it’s still important to know about other signs to watch for. “As the cancer progresses, subtle symptoms begin to appear, but they still may not be noticed right away,” advises the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC).
Other symptoms of ovarian cancer may include a frequent need to urinate, back pain, weight gain or loss, and vaginal bleeding between periods. However, MSKCC advises that although these symptoms may be subtle, especially early on, “they are usually fairly constant and represent a change from how you normally feel.” In addition, the symptoms will get worse as the cancer progresses.
Knowing the potential signs, however vague, as well as the risk factors for ovarian cancer, can help women secure an early diagnosis. The American Cancer Society reports that weight, family history, and age are all a factor. (It’s rare for women under 40 to develop ovarian cancer.) And don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor about symptoms that are sudden, unusual, or last for more than two to three weeks.
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