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Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer

Updated on April 05, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Howard Goodman, M.D.
Article written by
Emily Wagner, M.S.

Most ovarian cancer symptoms are similar to those of other health conditions, so they are described as “silent” or “vague” symptoms. Ovarian cancer also shares common symptoms with other gynecologic cancers, which can make diagnosis difficult. Only around 15 percent of ovarian cancer cases are diagnosed in the early stages (stage 1 or 2). However, when ovarian cancer is caught early and treated, the five-year survival rate is 92 percent.

Ovarian cancer is caused by uncontrolled cell growth and division in the ovaries. The three main types of ovarian cancer are epithelial ovarian cancer, germ cell ovarian cancer, and stromal ovarian cancer.

Common Ovarian Cancer Symptoms

Some ovarian cancer symptoms, like abdominal bloating, pelvic pain, indigestion, and fatigue, may overlap with symptoms of other, noncancerous diseases. However, in cases of ovarian cancer, these symptoms will be more persistent and change over time. For example, they may become more severe or occur more often. Trying unsuccessfully to treat these symptoms with changes in diet, exercise, or medication may also point to a more serious problem. If you have symptoms more than 12 times a month, it is a good idea to see your doctor.

Keep in mind that each person will experience symptoms differently. Listen to your body, and when you feel that something is wrong, speak with your doctor about your concerns. They will likely conduct a pelvic exam and may send you for further testing.

Read more about diagnosing ovarian cancer.

Epithelial and germ cell ovarian cancer do not show the same symptoms as stromal cell ovarian cancer. Epithelial ovarian cancer involves the cells covering the outside of the ovaries while ovarian germ cell cancer arises from egg cells in the ovaries. Surface epithelial tumors are the most common and dangerous, because 70 percent of women are not diagnosed until the cancer has progressed to an advanced stage. Symptoms often go unrecognized until the cancer has spread to other organs surrounding the ovaries.

Pelvic Symptoms

Pelvic symptoms of ovarian cancer are generally concentrated in the lower abdominal area, but they can be mistaken as symptoms of another condition or disease. These include:

  • A lump in the pelvic area
  • Swelling in the pelvic area
  • Abnormal vaginal discharge
  • Frequent urination
  • Pain during sex
  • Pelvic pressure
  • Pelvic pain
  • Urinary urgency (feeling like you always need to urinate)
  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding
  • Changes in menstrual cycle, such as heavier or irregular bleeding
  • Back pain

Gastrointestinal Symptoms

  • Abdominal bloating
  • Changes in bowel habits, such as constipation or diarrhea
  • Nausea or upset stomach
  • Abdominal pain
  • Indigestion
  • Early satiety (feeling full sooner than normal when eating)

General Symptoms

  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty eating
  • Unexplained weight loss or weight gain

Stromal Cell Ovarian Cancer Symptoms

Stromal cell ovarian tumors are rare, making up only 1.2 percent of all malignant ovarian tumors. Stromal cell ovarian cancer is often found early and has a 75 percent survival rate.

Unlike other types of ovarian tumors, stromal cell tumors often involve hormone production — which may result in early puberty or menstrual changes. These symptoms typically present in teenagers and young adults.

Symptoms of stromal cell ovarian tumors include:

  • Abdominal bloating
  • Sudden, severe abdominal pain if the tumor begins bleeding or if an ovary twists around the ligaments holding it in place (ovarian torsion)
  • Abnormal uterine bleeding (in cases where the tumor produces estrogen)
  • Sudden stop of menstruation, as well as body and facial hair growth (in cases where the tumor produces testosterone)
  • Menstrual periods and breast development beginning in young girls before the expected age of puberty
  • Endometrial hyperplasia, or a noncancerous thickening of the uterine lining

If you have been diagnosed with Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, you are at a higher risk of developing certain types of stromal cell ovarian cancer, due to your genetics.

Ovarian Cyst Symptoms

Ovarian cysts are a collection of fluid inside the ovary. Functional cysts develop normally during ovulation (egg release) and will eventually go away on their own. Some women may experience pain with ovarian cysts that requires treatment and monitoring. This pain may feel like ovarian cancer pain, but cysts are mostly benign.

Sometimes the presence of ovarian cysts may be concerning. In cases where a woman is not ovulating (has not started her period yet or is past menopause), a doctor may want to run some tests. Larger cysts that do not go away on their own over the course of a few months are also a reason for concern.

Ovarian Cancer Symptom or Treatment Side Effect?

Oftentimes, it can be difficult to tell the difference between the symptoms of ovarian cancer and the side effects of treatment. Common treatments for ovarian cancer include chemotherapy, hormone therapy, targeted inhibitors, and occasionally radiation therapy. Some side effects you can expect from ovarian cancer treatment include:

  • Nausea or upset stomach
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss

Symptoms of ovarian cancer and side effects from treatment will likely be different for everyone, depending on a number of factors. Let your doctor know if you are experiencing any new symptoms or side effects, so they can be addressed in a timely manner.

Read more about treatments for ovarian cancer.

Risk Factors for Developing Ovarian Cancer

Certain factors put you at an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. If you have any of these risk factors and have symptoms of ovarian cancer, speak with your doctor about your concerns. Risk factors include:

  • Getting older
  • Having a family history of ovarian, colorectal, or breast cancer
  • Having a previous diagnosis of breast cancer
  • Using hormone therapy after menopause
  • Having gene mutations associated with ovarian cancer (BRCA 1, BRCA 2, ATM, BRIP1, and others)
  • Having Lynch syndrome
  • Using fertility treatments

Read more about causes of ovarian cancer.

Ovarian Cancer Condition Guide

References

  1. Ovarian Epithelial, Fallopian Tube, and Primary Peritoneal Cancer Treatment (PDQ) — Patient Version — National Cancer Institute
  2. What are the Signs & Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer? — National Ovarian Cancer Coalition
  3. Survival Rates for Ovarian Cancer — American Cancer Society
  4. Signs and Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer — American Cancer Society
  5. Treating Ovarian Cancer — American Cancer Society
  6. Stromal Cell Ovarian Cancer — Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance
  7. Endometrial Hyperplasia — American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
  8. Cancer problem in Peutz-Jeghers syndrome — Advanced Biomedical Research
  9. What is Ovarian Cancer? — American Cancer Society
  10. Ovarian Cancer Risk Factors — American Cancer Society
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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