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How to tell when pelvic pain could be ovarian cancer

You’re youthful and free. Life is just beginning, and you have a fresh career, a new marriage or a newborn baby. Major health concerns seem a lifetime away, but you start experiencing symptoms. Anxiety kicks in, and your mind is plagued by the worst-case scenario.

More: How family history can help you understand your cancer risk

Is something wrong with me? What if it’s cancer?

Knowing the difference between symptoms — what’s considered normal pain versus something more serious — can ease your stress and give you the best possible chance of early detection. For young women, this is especially true of pelvic pain, ovarian masses and ovarian cancer.

Pelvic pain

If you’re experiencing pelvic pain, it could be caused by several things other than an ovarian mass or cancer. Likely culprits are issues with the bowel, colon or bladder, which also occur in the pelvic area.

Urinary tract infections have a quick beginning — this onset includes intense pain and constant discomfort. Appendicitis can be recognized by an acute arrival of pain in the lower right quadrant of the pelvis, along with nausea, fever and chills. Inflammatory bowel disease causes distress that’s more chronic and constant.

These symptoms differ dramatically in their onset and intensity from the discomfort caused by an ovarian mass.

More: Can new ovarian cancer screening methods help detect it sooner?

Ovarian masses

Thirteen percent of premenopausal women face the risk of developing a malignant ovarian mass — a buildup of tissue found in the region that holds the uterus and ovaries. The result is often swelling or an enlargement in the pelvic region and potential pelvic pain. Most masses, however, do not cause ovarian cancer or other significant health issues.

A majority of benign cysts, neoplasms (i.e., new growths) and other types of masses are fairly common, and many are a part of the ovulation process. They are usually harmless and will shrink or disappear on their own. Others can be removed with surgery.

It’s only large cysts — or ones that don’t go away after a cycle or two — that your doctor may want to examine more closely or monitor over time. If a mass happens to be related to endometriosis, it can lead to infertility. Symptoms of this type of growth include pressure within the bowel or bladder and kidney blockage. Young women experiencing these symptoms will want to consult a doctor to avoid chronic pain and pelvic adhesions.

Ovarian cancer

Other masses may be more serious, although only approximately 1 in 70 women will develop ovarian cancer during her lifetime.

Ovarian cancer used to be termed “the silent killer” because it was believed that there were no symptoms. A 2007 study, however, was able to link symptoms to ovarian cancer.

If your pelvic pain comes with cramping, nausea, diarrhea, fever, vomiting or weight loss, it’s critical to let your doctor know. Other related symptoms include constipation, pelvic weakness, side or back pain and changes in vaginal bleeding.

This type of pain can be more serious, especially if the symptoms appear together suddenly and occur more than 10 times in one month.

Knowledge is power, and being informed can decrease anxiety and facilitate early detection. No need to worry — enjoy your life! Just be aware of your body, keep up-to-date on the differences between various pains and symptoms and check in with your doctor if you have concerns.

More: How to find the best doctor for ovarian cancer

Dr. Judy Wolf is the chief medical officer at Vermillion, Inc. She received her medical degree from the Northeast Ohio Medical University College of Medicine, and her clinical and research interests are in gynecologic cancers — specifically ovarian cancer.

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