The 4 Early Signs of Ovarian Cancer You Need to Know, Says Doctor With Disease

"Do not dismiss your pain or malaise," a neurologist with ovarian cancer warns.

When you experience subtle symptoms, it can be hard to register them as something worth telling your doctor about. Although it may feel silly to complain about small discomforts or minor inconveniences, neuroscientist Nadia Chaudhri, PhD, who is currently battling terminal ovarian cancer, urges you to know your body and take account of what it's trying to tell you. Read on to learn the subtle but serious signs of ovarian cancer that she wants you to know.

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Fatigue, abdominal pain, lower back pain, and an increase in urination can be signs of ovarian cancer.

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In a Twitter thread on Sept. 13, Chaudhri took to social media with the goal of raising awareness about early signs of ovarian cancer to help inform her more than 128,000 followers and anyone else her message could reach. She revealed that she started "feeling unwell" in Jan. 2020. "I was tired, had vague abdominal pain, severe lower back pain, and a mild increase in frequency to urinate," Chaudhri wrote. These were ultimately early signs of ovarian cancer, but she wouldn't know that for a while.

"Pay attention to fatigue and changes in bowel/urinary tract movements. Make sure you understand all the words on a medical report," Chaudhri urged. "Do not dismiss your pain or malaise. Find the expert doctors."

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Chaudri says you need to know your body and advocate for yourself.

Doctor showing digital tablet to woman. Female patient sitting with health professional. They are against window in hospital.
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Doctors assumed Chaudhri's symptoms were related to a UTI, so she was given antibiotics. An ultrasound showed fluid in her abdomen, which doctors thought might have been related to a ruptured ovarian cyst at the time. Her symptoms came back in February, and she was prescribed different antibiotics. In March, her abdomen was bloated, and she experienced moderate pain and extreme fatigue. However, she was unable to see a doctor, because the COVID pandemic had just begun in the U.S. In April, she went on another round of antibiotics.

Finally, in May, another ultrasound showed that her ovaries were enlarged and had shifted toward the middle of her abdomen. The radiologist suggested that it could be due to endometriosis, a condition where tissue that usually lines the uterus grows outside the uterus. Chaudhri wasn't convinced. After getting blood work done, it was clear that she had cancer. Six months after Chaudhri began experiencing symptoms, she finally had a diagnosis.

Chaudhri is now urging people to advocate for themselves and know their bodies. She noted that there needs to be more awareness of the early symptoms of ovarian cancer in particular, because "early detection improves prognosis dramatically." On Sept. 21, Jason Wright, MD, the chief of gynecologic oncology at Columbia University, told Today that since the warning signs are "very vague," women have to be their own advocates. If you notice symptoms persisting or worsening, discuss the possibility of ovarian cancer with your doctor, he said.

Other warning signs of ovarian cancer include nausea, weight loss, and feeling full.

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In addition to the abdominal pain, lower back pain, increase in urination, bloating, and fatigue that Chaudhri detailed, there are a handful of other warning signs of ovarian cancer that you should watch for. Per Wright, other signs include gastrointestinal complaints, nausea, vomiting, feeling full and not being able to finish eating your meals, burning when urinating, and pelvic pain. The Mayo Clinic notes that weight loss can also be a sign of ovarian cancer.

According to Wright, women often don't tell their physician about these kinds of symptoms, so "in the majority of women with ovarian cancer, the cancer has already spread outside the ovary at the time of diagnosis." That's all the more reason to be vocal about how you're feeling when you visit your doctor.

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Getting regular pelvic exams can help promote detection.

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According to the American Cancer Society, only about 20 percent of ovarian cancers are found early in part because the symptoms tend to be so vague. Regular pelvic exams can help promote detection because an OB-GYN will be able to feel a mass on an ovary—although by that point, the cancer has likely already spread, according to Wright. He added that a transvaginal ultrasound is another helpful tool for detection.

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