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Early Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer

Posted on November 18, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Howard Goodman, M.D.
Article written by
Anastasia Climan

Ovarian cancer is an uncommon but very serious cancer. As with most cancers, early detection of ovarian cancer may increase survival rates, so it’s important to know what to look out for. Since routine pap smears can’t detect ovarian cancer, it’s vital to know your risk factors and recognize any early symptoms you experience. Being equipped with the right knowledge can help you to seek treatment as needed and help protect your health.

Early Signs and Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer

The early symptoms of ovarian cancer can seem nonspecific, but usually start out with:

  • Consistent belly bloating and abdominal distention that happens daily for at least three weeks
  • Constipation that doesn’t respond to treatment
  • Pressure or pain in the lower back, pelvis, and abdomen that lasts for over a week
  • Trouble eating, or feeling full quickly on small portions
  • Urinary changes, such as a sudden urge to go, the need to go frequently, or bladder pressure that’s not related to a urinary tract infection

Any time you notice changes to your health that you can’t explain or that last for several weeks, it’s a good idea to check with your health care provider. However, ovarian cancer can often be difficult to detect early, as early stage ovarian cancer may also have no symptoms.

Many symptoms of ovarian cancer aren’t recognizable until the condition has progressed to more advanced stages. Common symptoms of ovarian cancer typically worsen as time goes on. Many people report issues such as:

  • Gas, heartburn, nausea, or vomiting
  • Lower abdominal pain
  • Pelvic pain or heaviness
  • Poor appetite
  • Irregular vaginal bleeding and abnormal periods
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Worsening back pain

Because some of these symptoms could easily be attributed to other issues, your doctor will likely review your health history and run a series of tests to investigate other possible causes.

Ovarian Cancer Risk Factors

Knowing your risk may also help you catch any potential early warning signs of ovarian cancer. Research shows that you may be more likely to get ovarian cancer if:

  • You or a close relative has had breast cancer, ovarian cancer, or colon cancer.
  • You carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene.
  • You have hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer syndrome, also known as Lynch syndrome.
  • You’ve gone through menopause or are older than 50.
  • You’ve undergone fertility treatment.
  • A genetic test shows that you carry the RAD51C, RAD51D, STK11, or BRIP1 (FABCJ) genes.

Genetic testing isn’t recommended for everyone, but if you have a strong family history of certain health conditions, genetic testing could help you assess your risk. If you have genetic testing done, it’s important to meet with a genetic counselor to review your results within the context of your overall health and lifestyle factors.

What Else Could It Be?

If you have symptoms, you shouldn’t hesitate to seek an evaluation for ovarian cancer, but know that there are several other conditions that can mimic these early symptoms. Issues like abdominal bloating, fullness, or irregular periods could be due to other conditions such as:

  • Ovarian cysts
  • Endometriosis
  • Uterine fibroids
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease
  • Premenstrual syndrome

Taking proactive steps to address your concerns can help you get timely treatment for the underlying cause of your symptoms.

Screening for Early Signs of Ovarian Cancer

Unlike for some other forms of cancer, doctors and researchers have not yet found a regular screening test for ovarian cancer. However, if you and your doctor are concerned about potential symptoms of ovarian cancer, your doctor can perform a series of tests. Along with a general physical exam and pelvic exam, your doctor may perform a rectovaginal exam, which allows for the best assessment of the pelvic area. Your doctor may order a pelvic or transvaginal ultrasound and a CT scan. These imaging techniques allow your doctor to check for abnormalities in your ovaries.

Sometimes these tests come back with normal results, but the symptoms persist. Your doctor may advise you to wait two to three weeks before repeating the ultrasound. They may also order additional testing like a CA-125 blood test and MRI. For those at low risk of ovarian cancer, the CA-125 blood test is generally not recommended. High levels of the protein CA-125 (cancer antigen 125) may also be related to benign conditions that aren’t ovarian cancer.

Talk With Others Who Understand

Hearing from others who have already gone through the early stages of an ovarian cancer diagnosis and treatment can give you insight and peace of mind as you navigate uncharted territory. MyOvarianCancerTeam is the social network for people with ovarian cancer and their loved ones. 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? What early symptoms did you experience? Share your experience 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.
Anastasia Climan is a dietitian with over 10 years of experience in public health and medical writing. Learn more about her here.

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