Patient Experience: Know the Signs and Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer

The symptoms of ovarian cancer are things like bloating, cramping, appetite changes - things that don't seem too abnormal. For Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, we talked with a patient about their cancer journey and CU Medicine gynecologic oncologist Dr. Jill Alldredge.

“You never think it will happen to you, but I have cancer.”

Karla Palma was diagnosed with ovarian cancer a few months before her 30th birthday. She says that she was feeling bloated, constipated, and had some cramping. Symptoms that women typically blame on other things. She never thought it would be cancer.

It was when she took a bath and felt a bump in her belly that she got worried, “That’s when I made my first appointment and they told me it was an ovarian cyst.”

“When she presented she already had quite large masses that basically filled more than half of her belly space and were starting to spread to spaces like the surface of her liver,” explained Dr. Jill Alldredge with CU Medicine Gynecologic Oncology.

Palma was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer.  Although most prevalent in women over 50 years of age, ovarian cancer can affect women of all ages. According to the Colorado Ovarian Cancer Alliance, one in 72 Colorado women will develop invasive ovarian cancer in their lifetime. Around 330 Colorado women are diagnosed annually.


Ovarian Cancer Treatment

Treatment for ovarian cancer typically includes surgery followed by chemotherapy. Palma had surgery to remove all visible cancer and is finishing up her chemo treatments, “The treatments at the beginning were a little hard because I didn’t know what to expect, but they didn’t turn out to be that bad,” she said.

After her chemo is done, Palma will continue to be followed very closely. She was found to have a genetic cancer mutation so she’ll also be put on a pill to reduce her recurrence risk, “It’s called a PARP inhibitor, to help keep cancer away, there is also use of PARP inhibitors in things like pancreatic cancer and breast cancer, but it’s not applied universally to all cancers,” explained Alldredge.

Ovarian Cancer Symptoms

There is no test for ovarian cancer, so knowing and recognizing the symptoms is key. The symptoms can be subtle and may not seem too abnormal to experience, but if any persist for two weeks or more, call your doctor:

  • Bloating
  • Abdominal pressure or pain
  • Appetite changes – loss of appetite or get full quickly
  • Changes in bowel or bladder habits

Again, if you have just one of these symptoms that persists for two weeks or more, call your doctor, “Ask for a pelvic ultrasound, ask for a workup and a rule out of ovarian cancer,” added Alldredge.

Who is at risk of developing ovarian cancer? 

In about a quarter of the population ovarian cancer develops because of an inherited mutation, this was the case for Palma, “Because she’s so young I had a pretty high suspicion that she had an inherited cancer mutation,” said Alldredge.

There are ways to reduce your risk of ovarian cancer but understand that all women are still at risk. 

Some risk factors heighten a woman's chance of developing ovarian cancer:

  • Women of Eastern European Jewish descent
  • Women of Hispanic heritage
  • Women who have never been pregnant or who have never used birth control – less ovulation means less risk
  • Those who have a family history of ovarian, breast, or colon cancer may also have an increased risk.

To reduce your risk know the symptoms, and educate others through a “Teal Talk” (it’s called this because the color for Ovarian Cancer is teal).

Alldredge, along with another CU Medicine provider, Dr. Saketh Guntupalli, started the organization Nail Ovarian Cancer to raise awareness of ovarian cancer.

They have great information on their website, including the steps to have a “Teal Talk” with the women in your life:

  1. Ask if she knows about ovarian cancer.
  2. Remind her that there is NO screening for it (only cervical cancer is screened for in a pap) so it’s crucial to listen to your body if you have symptoms.
  3. Share the symptoms
  4. Urge her to listen to her body and advocate for herself by seeing her doctor and getting a pelvic ultrasound if she’s had any of these for more than two weeks.
  5.  Motivate her to tell others she loves by having Teal Talks like this!

Alldredge says that Palma is doing well with her treatments and her outlook looks great, “All in all, we’re in a really good place with her cancer care.”

Palma’s advice to other women, pay attention and listen to your body, “Don’t ignore the symptoms you get, even if you think it’s just something normal, even if it’s just a little cramping, don’t ignore it. Make an appointment and get checked because you never know.”

Palma also says to, "Just stay positive," throughout her cancer journey she has tried to focus on the positive things in her life, "For me it's my husband, my family, my child. They are my strength through all of this."

Click/tap here to learn more about CU Medicine Gynecologic Oncology.

TAGS: cancer care, ovarian cancer, women, womens health, women's health

CATEGORIES: Cancer Care, Women's Health

This post was originally posted on September 1, 2021