The subtle symptoms of ovarian cancer: what survivor Sandra wants you to know

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Nine years ago, Ipswich woman Sandra was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer at 67 years old. Looking back, she realised she had been experiencing symptoms for some time. Now, she’s sharing her story to help others recognise the subtle symptoms of ovarian cancer.

Symptoms of ovarian cancer are easy to ignore

Sandra had good excuses for feeling tired and lethargic. While working, she was busy preparing to move from New Zealand back to Australia to help look after her grandchildren.

‘I was working 10-hour shifts and preparing to move,’ she says. ‘I was tired, but I thought it was because I was working so much.’

Even Sandra’s doctor at the time agreed that this was probably the case.

Sandra also had lower pelvic pain, but it wasn’t extreme enough for her to worry.

‘It was more of a niggle,’ Sandra says. ‘I didn’t realise it was a symptom of something bigger.’

After arriving back in Australia, Sandra still didn’t feel quite right, but put it down to the stress of the move and adjusting from the cool New Zealand climate to the hot and humid end of an Ipswich summer.

‘I felt lethargic, I became withdrawn, but I put it down to the heat. I used to love dancing, but instead I stayed home in my room. I had horrendous night sweats, but I thought it was because I was still going through “the change”.’

It wasn’t until one morning when she woke up with an extremely bloated stomach that Sandra knew something was very wrong.

‘I woke up looking like I was nine months pregnant. I went to the doctor, who sent me straight for a scan and ultrasound. That was on Monday. I went back to the doctor on Thursday, and he told me to go and get admitted to hospital.’

Sandra was admitted to Ipswich Hospital, where she found out her diagnosis. She had stage four ovarian cancer, which had spread from her ovaries, though her stomach lining and into her lungs. Her daughter has since told her that doctors warned the family to prepare for the worst.

What is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer is gynaecological cancer that grows in the ovaries, fallopian tubes or lining of the abdominal cavity. It can also spread to grow in other parts of the body. There are three main types of ovarian cancer, which can require different treatments.

Every year, about 285 Queenslanders are diagnosed with ovarian cancer. While it’s more commonly diagnosed in people over 50, ovarian cancer can occur at any age.

What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?

Sandra’s story of misunderstood ovarian cancer symptoms is not uncommon. While it makes sense to assume a serious disease like ovarian cancer would be very painful or cause big changes in the body, like Sandra experienced, ovarian cancer symptoms can be mild and some people experience no symptoms at all.

When it does cause symptoms, the signs of ovarian cancer can seem vague and easy to ignore, or be mistaken for other, less serious conditions.

Symptoms of ovarian cancer can include:

  • abdominal bloating
  • increased abdominal size
  • pain or pressure in the abdomen or pelvis
  • loss of appetite (not feeling like you want to eat)
  • feeling full quickly when eating
  • indigestion
  • urinary changes like needing to go to the toilet more often or more urgently
  • changes in bowel habits including constipation
  • unexplained weight loss or weight gain
  • unexplained fatigue (tiredness)
  • unexpected vaginal bleeding including bleeding between periods, after menopause or after sex.

When should I tell my doctor about ovarian cancer symptoms?

If you notice symptoms of ovarian cancer or a change in your body that lasts for three weeks or more, it’s important to tell your general practitioner (GP).

You should return to your doctor if your symptoms are diagnosed as a different issue, but they don’t go away. You can also seek a second opinion from a different doctor if your symptoms continue and you are feeling concerned.

Will routine tests show if I have ovarian cancer?

There isn’t an early screening test for ovarian cancer, which means it’s important to be aware of the symptoms and tell your doctor if you notice changes in your body that could be caused by ovarian cancer.

Ovarian cancer will not be picked up in a cervical screen (formerly called a pap smear) or other cancer screening tests.

Sandra’s survival story

After enduring a long period of treatment — first chemotherapy and then surgery — Sandra made it through. Cancer-free for nine years, she now shares her story to make sure more Queenslanders learn about the symptoms of ovarian cancer.

‘No matter what your age, don’t ignore changes and symptoms or make excuses for them,’ she says. ‘Go to your doctor. Never think that you’re wasting the doctor’s time with a minor concern.’

Sandra’s family also encourages others to pay attention to changes in their loved one’s health and prompt them to see their doctor about any symptoms. Her daughter says that while they noticed that Sandra wasn’t herself when she moved back to Australia, they all put it down to tiredness from her move. They now know they were seeing the signs of a serious disease.

More information about ovarian cancer

For more information about ovarian cancer, visit the links below.

Cancer Queensland – What is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian Cancer Australia

Health Direct – Ovarian cancer