In the fight against cancer, catching the first symptoms of the disease can be crucial. “Early diagnosis of cancer involves detecting symptomatic patients as early as possible so that they have the best chance of successful treatment,” explains the World Health Organization (WHO). “When cancer care is delayed or inaccessible, chances of survival are lower, problems associated with treatment are greater, and costs of care are higher.”
Some cancer warning signs are more familiar than others. An irregular mole can be a red flag for skin cancer, while a lump in the breast can indicate breast cancer. Other symptoms are less well known and some cancers manifest themselves in subtle, even undetectable ways.
A change in your toileting habits can be a sign of ovarian cancer, which can present with vague symptoms and lead to 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 chances of survival. But because the warning signs may not be easily identifiable, the disease often goes undetected until it is more advanced.
“In its early stages, ovarian cancer may show no noticeable signs,” says Healthline. “When symptoms do appear, these 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 look like IBS, constipation, or diarrhea can be an indicator of ovarian cancer.
Why do the ovaries have an effect on the intestines? “The ovaries are attached to the uterus and hang from the uterus, which means they float freely in the pelvis,” Marilyn Huang, MD, tells Everyday Health. The small intestine floats in the pelvic cavity, she says, explaining that as ovarian cancer grows, it can attach to the intestines and affect their function.
This can lead to gastrointestinal symptoms that may resemble IBS. According to WebMD, IBS and ovarian cancer can lead to stomach pain, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. (Note that these types of changes in bowel habits can also be caused by many 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 hard to know when they could be a sign of something serious. Always check with your health care provider if you have symptoms that come on suddenly or seem abnormal. What complicates matters is the fact that, as Barbara A. Goffsaid MD Oncology News“Most women with ovarian cancer have abdominal or gastrointestinal (GI) problems and diagnoses are often delayed because neither patients nor doctors recognize these warning signs.”
It may be helpful to look for other symptoms that may clarify a potential diagnosis. For example, IBS typically begins in early adulthood, according to Mount Sinai Health System: “It is less likely to begin in people over the age of 50.” If IBS symptoms come on suddenly in an older person, it can be cause for concern.
PMS can cause constipation or diarrhea, but it “tends to happen in predictable ways,” the Mount Sinai experts write. “Unlike ovarian cancer, it should come and go with your menstrual cycle.”
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Although early symptoms of ovarian cancer can be difficult to spot, it’s still important to know what other signs to look out for. “As the cancer progresses, subtle symptoms begin to appear, but they may not be noticed right away,” advises the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC).
Other symptoms of ovarian cancer can include frequent urination, back pain, weight gain or loss, and vaginal bleeding between periods. However, the MSKCC states that while these symptoms may be subtle, especially at first, “they are usually quite constant and represent a change from what you normally experience.” Also, the symptoms get worse as the cancer progresses.
Knowing the potential signs, however vague, and the risk factors for ovarian cancer can help women get an early diagnosis. The American Cancer Society reports that weight, family history, and age are all factors. (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 that last longer than two to three weeks.
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