Abdominal bloating, cramping, and changes to urination or bowel habits are some early signs of ovarian cancer that can be easy to miss or mistake for something else.
Ovarian cancer accounts for the most significant number of gynecological cancer deaths. It is often called “the silent killer.”
The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that around
This article explores the silent signs of ovarian cancer that people miss or ignore and factors that increase the risk of getting ovarian cancer.
Early detection occurs in only one in five cases of ovarian cancer. There may be no noticeable signs in its early stages. When present, symptoms can be vague and hard to detect because they overlap with other conditions.
There is also no test currently available to screen for ovarian cancer. This means it is most often detected once it has spread, which reduces a person’s chance of survival.
While early ovarian cancer is often asymptomatic, a 2022 retrospective review found that 70% of people with high risk early stage ovarian cancer reported one or more symptoms. Symptoms tend to be nonspecific and are caused by noncancerous conditions.
However, symptoms linked to ovarian cancer tend to occur
Below are six commonly reported silent signs of ovarian cancer that a person may miss or ignore.
1. Persistent abdominal (belly) bloating
Bloating is the
People typically notice bloating when wearing fitted clothing or during pregnancy.
It can also happen when cancer cells block lymph drainage, preventing fluid in the peritoneum from being reabsorbed.
2. Pelvic or belly pain, cramping, or pressure
Some people report feeling cramping pain similar to menstrual cramps. Others feel squeezing, pressure-like pain. The pain can be felt all over the pelvis or limited to one side.
Learn more about other causes of pelvic pain here.
3. Feeling full after a light meal
The fluid buildup in the peritoneum that causes bloating can put pressure on the stomach, causing a person to feel full all the time or after a light meal. This can cause a lack of appetite and problems eating.
4. Urinary problems
The ovaries are close to the bladder. Changes in the ovaries can affect the bladder and urinary tract. A growing tumor may press on the bladder and cause issues. Common urinary symptoms associated with ovarian cancer include:
- frequent urination
- urine leaks
- strong sense of urgency to urinate
- pain or pressure in the bladder
5. Menstrual changes
Bleeding or spotting between periods or vaginal bleeding after menopause is a less common symptom of ovarian cancer. Discharges that are not common for a person can also be a sign of ovarian cancer.
The 2022 retrospective review mentioned earlier found that 13% of people had vaginal bleeding as an early disease symptom.
Learn more about vaginal bleeding and ovarian cancer here.
Changes can include missing a period or having heavier bleeding than usual. However, other common causes for menstrual changes include pregnancy, stress, low body weight, and hormonal imbalances.
6. Changes in bathroom habits
Aside from bloating and abdominal pain, other gastrointestinal symptoms may signify ovarian cancer.
A growing tumor may place pressure on the intestines, causing changes in bowel habits, indigestion, constipation, and diarrhea.
The following symptoms can also indicate ovarian cancer:
- back pain
- painful sex (dyspareunia) or bleeding after sex
- weight loss or weight gain
Several factors place a person at a higher risk of getting ovarian cancer. They include:
- having close family members with ovarian cancer
- Eastern European or Ashkenazi Jewish heritage
- problems with pregnancy
- having a first child at age 35 or older
- breast, colon, or uterine cancer
- hormone therapy after menopause
- fertility treatment such as in vitro fertilization
- age (being middle-aged or older)
- having mutated BCRA1 or BRCA2 genes
Having one or more of these factors does not mean a person will have ovarian cancer. However, they may consider speaking with a doctor, especially if there is a family history of ovarian cancer.
There is still no test that screens for early indication of ovarian cancer. However, a doctor can do several tests to look for the presence of a tumor in the ovaries and see whether they are cancerous or not.
Doctors will first carry out a thorough medical check, including family and personal history. This is to identify risk factors and rule out other causes of the symptoms. They will also ask questions to learn more about the nature of symptoms, including when they began and how long they have been present.
Then a doctor will do a physical exam, which includes a pelvic exam to check the health of the person’s ovaries and check for other symptoms such as ascites.
If they suspect ovarian cancer or if a person has a high risk of getting the disease, a doctor will order additional tests, including:
- blood tests, such as a CA-125, which looks for high levels of protein secreted by ovarian cancer and other tumor markers, such as alpha-fetoprotein and lactate dehydrogenase
- imaging tests, such as a transvaginal ultrasound, CT scan, MRI, PET scan, and chest X-ray
- biopsy, if an abnormal mass is detected
Most of the early symptoms of ovarian cancer have noncancerous causes. However, it is best not to ignore them. A person should speak with a doctor if symptoms seem unusual, persist for several weeks, or become troublesome.
Ovarian cancer does not show signs in its early stages. When it does, they are often nonspecific or vague.
A person experiencing early symptoms of ovarian cancer should promptly seek medical advice. Symptoms include bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, appetite changes, changes in bowel habits, an increased need to urinate, and changes in menstruation.
Medical treatment can cure ovarian cancer for most people if the cancer is detected and treated early. While there is no single way to screen for early detection of ovarian cancer, various tests, and monitoring by a doctor may help detect the cancer before it spreads.