Ovarian cancer and endometriosis are two conditions that can affect a woman’s reproductive system. It is very important to know how they might be related and how they differ. Ovarian cancer is relatively uncommon, with approximately 20,000 new cases found annually in the United States (lifetime risk is 1 in 78). At the same time, millions of women live with endometriosis (up to 1 in 10). Since they share some similar symptoms, you should know the differences between the two to get an accurate diagnosis and proper treatment. This article will explore how to tell the difference between ovarian cancer and endometriosis.
What is Endometriosis?
Endometriosis is a condition where tissue similar to the lining of the inside of the uterus grows outside of the uterus, such as on the ovaries, fallopian tubes, and other organs in the pelvis and beyond. It can cause pain, infertility, and many other problems. A diagnosis can be suspected by symptoms, blood tests, and various scans, but surgery is the only way to determine if endo is present accurately.
Symptoms of endometriosis include:
- Painful periods
- Pain during sex
- Chronic pelvic pain
- Bloating and pain after eating
What is Ovarian Cancer?
Ovarian cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the ovaries and Fallopian tubes. It is often called the “silent killer” because it is difficult to detect in the early stages when it is more curable. Similar to endometriosis, a diagnosis can be suspected using scans and blood tests but the only way to be sure is a biopsy, which is usually performed during surgery.
Symptoms of ovarian cancer may include:
- Pelvic pain or pressure
- Abdominal pain, initially vague
- Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
- Urinary symptoms, such as urgency or frequency
So, the symptoms are similar. But there are subtle innuendoes and some clear differences in Endometriosis and Ovarian Cancer findings and symptoms.
- / Pain: While both endometriosis and ovarian cancer can cause pelvic and abdominal pain, the pain from endometriosis tends to be more cyclical, happening around the time of the menstrual cycle. The pain from ovarian cancer, on the other hand, is often more constant and dull. However, there is a lot of overlap, and endometriosis pain is variable.
- / Bloating: Bloating due to endometriosis can come and go and is usually caused by intestinal gas caused by endo-induced inflammation and related conditions such as small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). Ovarian cancer bloating can also be due to gas and an accumulation of a fluid called ascites. This bloating of ovarian cancer usually worsens and does not come and go.
- / Age: Endometriosis is typically diagnosed in women of reproductive age, while the most common type of ovarian cancer is usually found in women over 50. Again, there is some overlap, and endo can persist into menopause, or symptoms can even begin after menopause.
- / Family history: Women with a family history of ovarian cancer are at a higher risk of developing the disease, and there are genetic links that can be tested for. Conversely, endometriosis does not have a clear genetic link but also runs in families.
- / Symptom duration: The symptoms of endometriosis tend to develop gradually over time (years), while the symptoms of ovarian cancer may come on more suddenly (weeks to months), and bloating can be more pronounced and unremitting.
In general, ovarian cancer presents an immediate threat to life. Endo, on the other hand, presents a lifelong threat to the quality of life, which may stretch over decades. Unfortunately, the two can overlap because the risk of developing ovarian cancer in women with endometriosis is elevated by 1.5 to 3-fold. That worrisome increase in risk still represents a tiny percentage. But even a fraction of one percent of millions of women means thousands or tens of thousands can be affected. Expert opinion from a specialist and possibly genetic testing can help determine your risk. Research is underway to discover gene-driven biomarkers that will allow more accurate diagnosis.
It is important to note that both endometriosis and ovarian cancer can have overlapping symptoms, and some women may end up with both conditions simultaneously. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above, it is important to talk to your healthcare provider. Many other conditions can cause the symptoms listed. But it’s better to be safe than sorry if they seem to persist and not go away. In other words, for example, everyone can have a bout of stomach flu with bloating, nausea, and painful diarrhea, but it usually passes over a few days to a week. Any unusual symptoms that go longer than that should be evaluated.
In conclusion, endometriosis and ovarian cancer are distinct conditions affecting the female reproductive system. While they share some similar symptoms, such as pelvic pain, there are substantial differences that can help distinguish between the two. By understanding the differences between endometriosis and ovarian cancer, you and your doctor can take appropriate steps to get the right diagnosis and treatment.
Getting an expert opinion from a specialist can be critical to get you on the right path for diagnosis and treatment. But, in a situation where you may be worried about both endo and cancer, perhaps because you are older or have a worrisome family history, what type of specialist should you seek for that opinion? In most cases, a general gynecologist can point you in the right direction. But if the concern is not heard and you are left wondering, an endometriosis specialist would be a good bet if endo seems to be most likely. If both are a concern due to your symptoms, age, or family history, then a gynecologic oncologist may be the better bet or an additional opinion to seek. There are a few gynecologic oncologists out there that truly specialize in both endo and ovarian cancer.
Serdar EB et al Epithelial Mutations in Endometriosis: Link to Ovarian Cancer. Endocrinology 2019 Mar 1;160(3):626-638.
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More articles from Dr. Steve Vasilev:
Endometriosis And Menopause; Everything You Need To Know
Understanding the Connection between Endometriosis and Cancer
What would happen to the signs and symptoms of endometriosis after menopause?