‘My first symptoms of ovarian cancer’: Signs to look for and when to see a doctor
Bloating, diarrhea and abdominal pain are three of the most common symptoms of ovarian cancer. They’re also some of the easiest to overlook. Perhaps it’s because they can also be signs of so many other conditions, including indigestion, a stomach virus, and even the cramps that can accompany a woman’s menstrual cycle.
“I attributed my bloating to a strong course of antibiotics I’d just finished,” says Angela Hernandez, who was 32 when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2018. “My gynecologist thought the same thing — until she discovered a hard spot when she pressed down on my belly during a well-woman exam.”
Leslie Medley-Russell thought she had a bad case of diarrhea when her symptoms started in Mexico. “That’s a pretty common complaint among travelers, though, so I figured it was just an intestinal bug,” says Leslie, who was diagnosed in 2013 at age 46. “Then, I started feeling very bloated. It wasn’t really painful, just extremely uncomfortable.”
Some women experience such severe bloating that it distorts their appearance. “I looked like I was nine months pregnant,” recalls Careli Ann Garza, who was 32 when she was diagnosed in 2020.
A new memory jogger for ovarian cancer symptoms
To learn more about ovarian cancer symptoms, as well as when to see a doctor, we consulted Jolyn Sharpe Taylor, M.D., a surgeon who specializes in gynecologic cancers.
“Bloating, diarrhea and abdominal pain are three of the most common ovarian cancer symptoms,” Taylor explains. “Feeling full quickly and exhaustion are the other two. That’s why some doctors use the acronym ‘BEACH’ as a memory device for ovarian cancer symptoms. BEACH stands for:
Early satiety, or feeling full quickly
Changes to bowel or bladder habits
“Body changes reflecting a ‘new normal’ are what you’re looking for,” Taylor adds. “So, if you feel bloated after a heavy meal or have diarrhea for a few days after getting back from a trip, don’t panic. I’d suggest calling your doctor if you have any of these symptoms for most days over two weeks.”
Other factors that may increase your ovarian cancer risk
Family history and your genetic profile may also affect your risk level for ovarian cancer.
Certain genetic mutations, such as BRCA1 and 2, and hereditary cancer syndromes, such as Lynch syndrome and hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome, can increase your odds of developing ovarian cancer. That means you might need to be monitored more closely for ovarian cancer than people who are at average risk.
“The frequency of your follow-ups will vary, based on your specific situation,” notes Taylor, “but talk with your doctor to find out how often you should be screened.”