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Can Abnormal Bleeding Be a Symptom of Ovarian Cancer?

Posted on February 14, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Howard Goodman, M.D.
Article written by
Emily Wagner, M.S.

Abnormal bleeding is one of many symptoms of ovarian cancer, but bleeding can also be caused by other conditions and factors. If you are experiencing abnormal bleeding along with any other symptoms of ovarian cancer, it’s important to make an appointment with your doctor.

What Is Abnormal Bleeding?

Abnormal bleeding happens when you have vaginal bleeding that is not normal for you or your menstrual cycle (your period). In a typical cycle, bleeding lasts for around five days every three to five weeks.

In many cases, abnormal bleeding occurs in people who are past menopause and no longer have periods. In people who do have periods, abnormal bleeding may be heavier than normal or become irregular in its timing.

Abnormal vaginal bleeding can happen occasionally and is not always caused by a serious condition. The Cleveland Clinic estimates that around 10 percent to 35 percent of women around the world experience abnormal bleeding. This estimate may be low, however, because symptoms are not always reported.

Why Does Ovarian Cancer Cause Abnormal Bleeding?

Abnormal bleeding is more likely with certain types of ovarian cancer. Bleeding as a symptom of ovarian cancer is most common in people with stromal cell ovarian tumors, which make up only 1 percent of all ovarian cancers. This is because the tumors may produce estrogen or other hormones that cause bleeding. In people who have already gone through menopause, the bleeding will appear similar to a period. In people still having menstrual cycles, the bleeding may be very irregular.

Epithelial and germ cell ovarian cancers do not have the same set of symptoms as stromal cell ovarian tumors. These cancers typically do not have any symptoms until the cancer has spread to other organs near the ovaries.

What Else Causes Abnormal Bleeding?

Abnormal bleeding can be caused by a number of triggers or conditions. These include:

  • Medication that thins the blood (anticoagulants)
  • Early pregnancy
  • Fibroids or polyps in the uterus
  • Ovulation
  • Use of an intrauterine device (IUD)
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease, which causes inflammation in the uterus and surrounding organs

Other potential causes include birth control, hormonal changes around menopause, and polycystic ovary syndrome.

Birth Control

Hormonal changes can cause abnormal bleeding. Hormonal birth control options change your menstrual cycle and may cause irregular bleeding outside of your normal period. If you have an IUD, you may have heavier periods or spotting.

Menopause

People who are in menopause, especially the transition period before menopause called perimenopause, also have changing hormone levels that can cause abnormal vaginal bleeding.

In some people, menopause can cause the lining of the uterus (known as the endometrium) to thicken. Endometrial thickening can lead to bleeding.

Any bleeding during menopause, even light spotting, is considered abnormal. You should speak to your doctor about this symptom and any other symptoms you may have.

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a condition that causes tiny, fluid-filled sacs called cysts to form in the ovaries. PCOS causes the ovaries to make too many androgens, or male sex hormones. This hormone imbalance can make your periods come at different times instead of on a regular schedule. In some cases, people with PCOS do not have periods for an extended amount of time.

When Is Abnormal Bleeding a Sign of Something Serious?

The American Cancer Society notes that many ovarian cancer symptoms can be — and often are — caused by other benign conditions. Symptoms could point to something more serious if they are persistent and represent a change from normal. If you are experiencing symptoms that have become worse over the course of six to 12 months, it is a good idea to talk to your doctor.

For those in menopause, any abnormal bleeding should be checked out by your doctor. Bleeding after menopause could be a sign of a more serious underlying condition, such as uterine cancer.

Other Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer

Abnormal bleeding is just one of many ovarian cancer symptoms, which can overlap with symptoms of other diseases. Other ovarian cancer symptoms include:

  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Problems eating, or feeling full quickly
  • Indigestion
  • Tiredness
  • Frequent urination
  • Weight loss
  • Abdominal pain
  • Lower back pain
  • Pelvic pain

If you begin to have any abnormal bleeding or other symptoms of ovarian cancer, tell your doctor. While it’s unlikely to experience symptoms in the early stages of ovarian cancer, ovarian cancer that is caught early can be treated much more easily. It also has a better prognosis than ovarian cancer diagnosed at a later stage.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyOvarianCancerTeam is the social network for people with ovarian cancer and their loved ones. More than 3,500 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with ovarian cancer.

Are you living with ovarian cancer? Share your experiences in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on MyOvarianCancerTeam.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Howard Goodman, M.D. is certified by the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology and specializes in the surgical management of women with gynecologic cancer. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.. Learn more about him here.
Emily Wagner, M.S. holds a Master of Science in biomedical sciences with a focus in pharmacology. She is passionate about immunology, cancer biology, and molecular biology. Learn more about her here.

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