Ovarian cancer does not always produce symptoms in the early stages. If symptoms occur, they may include pain, bloating, and the need to urinate more often than usual.
Ovarian cancer can be challenging to detect early. One reason is that if symptoms occur, they can resemble those of other conditions.
Also, the ovaries are small and located deep within the abdomen, making them hard for a doctor to feel during a physical exam.
According to the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, only around 15% of ovarian cancer cases are diagnosed in the early stages. The organization urges anyone with unexplained abdominal discomfort lasting more than 2 weeks to see a doctor.
In this article, learn which symptoms ovarian cancer may cause in the early stages, when to see a doctor, and what the diagnostic process involves.
Ovarian cancer may cause no symptoms in the early stages. If any occur, they tend to be very general.
Symptoms of ovarian cancer can appear at any stage, they tend to develop in the later stages, as growths put pressure on the bladder, uterus, and rectum.
The most common symptoms are:
- pain in the pelvis or abdomen
- feeling full soon after starting to eat
- having more urgent or frequent urination
Other symptoms include:
- indigestion, or an upset stomach
- back pain
- abdominal swelling
- pain during sex
- menstrual changes, such as irregular bleeding
These symptoms can have a wide range of causes and do not necessarily stem from ovarian cancer. However, if any of these symptoms are new, frequent, or persistent, seek medical advice.
Ovarian cancer is difficult to diagnose at an early stage. For this reason, it is important to be aware of the risk factors and contact a healthcare professional if symptoms appear.
In particular, seek medical advice if any new abdominal or pelvic symptoms:
- do not go away
- are present on most days
- do not stem from another condition
- do not respond to over-the-counter treatment or home remedies
- started in the last 12 months and lasted for more than 2 weeks
Researchers are still looking into ways of screening for ovarian cancer. There is no standard procedure, according to the American Cancer Society.
Some risk factors for ovarian cancer include:
- a family history of breast, ovarian, or colon cancer
- a history of breast cancer
- having a specific BRCA1 or BRAC2 gene mutation or another genetic risk factor for breast or ovarian cancer
- having a first full-term pregnancy after the age of 35
- never having a full-term pregnancy
- using hormone therapy after menopause
- some fertility treatments and hormone-based medications
- age, as most ovarian cancer cases develop after menopause
having Lynch syndrome
- having Eastern European and/or Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry
If a person has a family history of reproductive or gastrointestinal cancers, they may wish to consider genetic counseling. This can show whether they have any specific gene mutations that are increasing their risk of ovarian cancer.
Factors that may reduce the overall risk of developing ovarian cancer include:
- using oral birth control medication, in some cases
- having a reproductive system surgery, such as a hysterectomy, ovarian removal, or tubal ligation
- avoiding risk factors, such as smoking
- maintaining a healthy weight
- having a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables and low in added sugars and fats
To diagnose ovarian cancer, a doctor starts by asking questions about any symptoms, including:
- when they began
- how they have responded to home treatments
- how often they occur
The doctor will also ask about personal and family medical histories, including any history of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, or other types of cancer.
They will then perform a pelvic exam. They may be able to tell whether the ovaries are inflamed or enlarged, or whether there is fluid in the abdomen.
The doctor may recommend additional tests if:
- They notice anything unusual during the pelvic exam.
- Symptoms may indicate ovarian cancer.
- There is a high risk of ovarian cancer.
Below, we explore some tests and scans that can help detect ovarian cancer:
A transvaginal ultrasound
This involves inserting an ultrasound probe into the vagina. The probe transmits an image of the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries.
These images can show possible growths, and a doctor may even be able to tell whether growths are solid or cysts, which are noncancerous, fluid-filled sacs.
Most masses detected on ultrasounds are not cancerous.
CA-125 blood test
This measures levels of a protein called CA-125 in the blood. If a person has ovarian cancer, these levels may be higher than usual.
However, other conditions can also raise levels of CA-125, such as pelvic inflammatory disease and endometriosis. And not everyone with ovarian cancer has high levels of CA-125.
Also, CA-125 test results are more difficult to interpret before menopause, so doctors usually only use it after menopause.
CT scans can provide images of the abdominal cavity and pelvis, and they can show whether any unusual growth is present.
They can also show if cancer has spread to nearby tissues.
There is currently no reliable way of screening for ovarian cancer. Still, for people with a high risk, a doctor may conduct:
- a pelvic examination
- a transvaginal ultrasound
- a CA-125 blood test
However, there is no evidence that screening helps reduce the risk of ovarian cancer.
It is not usually possible to prevent this cancer from developing, but having a healthy lifestyle can help boost overall health and may reduce the risk.
Some strategies include:
- not smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke
- having a varied, healthy diet
- getting regular exercise
- avoiding or limiting alcohol consumption
How likely is it that the symptoms indicate cancer?
Ovarian cancer is relatively rare, representing an estimated 1.2% of all newly diagnosed cancer cases in 2020 in the United States. It is responsible for 2.3% of all cancer-related deaths in the country.
Overall, the symptoms associated with ovarian cancer are much more likely to be caused by other, far less severe conditions.
However, anyone who experiences unusual or persistent symptoms should seek medical advice.
If doctor diagnoses ovarian cancer in the early stages, the 5-year survival rate is around 93%. This figure reflects the likelihood of living for at least another 5 years after the diagnosis.
If the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, the 5-year survival rate is 31%. Between 2010 and 2016, the overall 5-year survival rate for people with ovarian cancer was around 48.6%.
It is important to note that survival rates are based on averages of past data. People are now living much longer after a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. As new drugs and treatments become available, the outlook continues to improve.
Symptoms of ovarian cancer may appear in the early stages, but they often do not appear until later. They include bloating, pain in the lower back, pelvis, and abdomen, and an increased need to urinate. However, these are common symptoms of other conditions, too.
A person should seek medical advice if they have unexplained pelvic or abdominal symptoms that are severe, last for more than 2 weeks, or do not go away with over-the-counter treatments and home care techniques.
Overall, the sooner a person receives a diagnosis and starts treatment, the more likely they are to have a good outcome.