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Vaginal Discharge and Ovarian Cancer: What To Look For

Medically reviewed by Danielle Leonardo, M.D.
Written by Sarah Winfrey
Posted on October 6, 2023

If you’ve been diagnosed with ovarian cancer or if you’re at high risk of developing it, you’ll need to take note if your vaginal discharge changes. Changes in vaginal discharge can be completely normal and no cause for alarm. However, in some cases, abnormal discharge may be a symptom of ovarian cancer.

If you’re concerned about a change in your vaginal discharge, it may be time to talk to your doctor. Here’s what you need to know about what’s normal and what to be on the lookout for when it comes to your vaginal discharge.

Vaginal Discharge: An Overview

Vaginal discharge is normal — it’s normal to have it, and it’s normal to see it change as you go through your menstrual cycle each month. It can change over time, too, developing different patterns as your body ages and hormones fluctuate (change).

Most normal vaginal discharge has one or more of the following qualities:

  • Odorless, or an odor that is not foul or fishy
  • Clear or white
  • Slippery and feels wet
  • Sticky or thick

You may notice that your body cycles through different types or amounts of discharge each month, corresponding to the fluctuations in hormonal levels during your menstrual cycle.

Many events and conditions can cause your discharge to change, and most of these have nothing to do with ovarian cancer. In some cases, they don’t even mean you need to see a doctor. Other times, you might need to be treated for an infection.

Your discharge may change due to:

  • A foreign object in the vagina
  • A yeast infection
  • A bacterial infection
  • A sexually transmitted infection
  • Chemicals from hot tubs, soaps, detergents, etc.
  • Pregnancy
  • Diabetes
  • Being on antibiotics

Changes that indicate you may need to see a doctor for an infection or another reason include:

  • Green or yellow discharge
  • Discharge the texture of cottage cheese
  • Discharge that smells fishy or otherwise unpleasant
  • Frothy discharge

If you’re worried about your discharge, talk to your gynecologist or gynecologic oncologist right away. They'll be able to help you evaluate the situation and figure out the best way to respond so you can stay healthy and feel your best.

Changes to Your Vaginal Discharge and Ovarian Cancer

There are many ways that your vaginal discharge can change. Some of these may be connected with ovarian cancer, another gynecologic cancer, or a noncancerous health condition.

Texture Changes

Vaginal discharge can vary in texture quite a bit and still be considered normal. As noted above, even thick discharge can be part of a normal cycle. However, if you experience a texture of discharge that is new or different for you, it’s time to talk to a doctor.

Most often, changes in discharge texture indicate some sort of infection. Many bacterial and yeast infections cause discharge to become thick and clotted, looking a lot like cottage cheese. This kind of discharge is often accompanied by symptoms like vaginal and vulvar itching or a bad smell. Most of the time, texture changes in vaginal discharge don’t indicate ovarian cancer.

Color Changes

Normal vaginal discharge can be a wide range of colors, from clear to white and even off-white or beige. If it’s another color, something may be wrong.

Infections usually cause discharge to become yellow or green, like mucus sometimes appears during respiratory infections. This change may indicate a yeast infection, a bacterial infection, or possibly a sexually transmitted infection.

If your discharge turns brown, that usually means there is dried, clotted blood in it. If you experience bleeding or brown discharge during ovulation that’s not normal for you, talk to your doctor.

Blood in the Discharge

Blood in what is otherwise clear or white discharge, bleeding between periods when you’ve never had it before, or bleeding after menopause are all considered abnormal bleeding. “My only symptom was postmenopausal bleeding,” shared one member of MyOvarianCancerTeam.

If you experience abnormal bleeding, you should see a doctor right away. Abnormal vaginal bleeding is a common early sign of ovarian cancer and may be a sign of uterine or cervical cancer.

Vaginal blood when there isn’t usually blood nearly always indicates a problem. This includes vaginal bleeding after sex, which is a common symptom of cervical cancer. Some women tend to think that bleeding after sex is normal, but it’s not. If you experience this regularly, this counts as abnormal bleeding and should be reported to your doctor as soon as possible.

Amount or Frequency Changes

The amount of discharge your body produces and how often you experience it can vary widely from person to person. Thus, it’s important to know your body and to observe how your discharge changes as you progress through your cycle and over the years. That way, you’ll notice when things are different so you can talk to a doctor.

The biggest thing to look out for here is if you are suddenly experiencing a lot more discharge than usual, or if you are experiencing large amounts of it throughout your cycle, rather than only at certain times. More discharge can indicate several issues, including, potentially, ovarian cancer.

Odor Changes

Most of the time, vaginal discharge does not have an odor, or the odor is minimal. It may smell different throughout your cycle, but the smells should be the same each month. If your discharge suddenly starts smelling bad, that can indicate a problem that requires medical advice to resolve.

Some MyOvarianCancerTeam members report noticing changes in smell before being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. ​​”A year before I was diagnosed, I had gone to a doctor with a strong sour smell down below,” related one member.

“I also had a bad odor before diagnosis,” shared another member. “It disappeared after chemo started.”

Most of the time, odor changes in vaginal discharge indicate an infection. Ovarian cancer rarely affects smell, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see a doctor if you experience foul-smelling discharge.

Vaginal Discharge and Ovarian Cancer Diagnosis

Initial studies have indicated that it may eventually become possible to analyze vaginal discharge to help screen for or diagnose ovarian cancer. However, this process requires more study and testing, as well as the development of efficient methods of analysis, before it can be used extensively. If you’d like to participate in a cancer research study on this topic, talk to your doctor and see if they can help you find one.

Talk to Your Doctor

Whether or not you’re currently diagnosed with ovarian cancer, report any concerning changes in your vaginal discharge to a health care provider. If you’re specifically concerned about ovarian cancer, let them know so they can arrange effective testing and evaluation. Your doctor can help you figure out what’s causing changes in your vaginal discharge and the next steps based on your particular health condition.

If you’re concerned about cancer risk, your doctor may screen you for other ovarian cancer symptoms, including:

  • Pain or a feeling of pressure in your lower back
  • Pain or a feeling of pressure somewhere in your pelvic area
  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Always feeling full
  • A new and persistent change in how often you go to the bathroom, like more frequent urination
  • Weight loss
  • Frequent indigestion

If you're worried about the connection between vaginal discharge and ovarian cancer, you’ll need to stay watchful. Your doctor may also perform a pelvic exam and other tests to check for additional symptoms and assess your cancer risk. It’s crucial to seek medical advice for your overall health and peace of mind.

Find Your Team

MyOvarianCancerTeam is the social network for people with ovarian cancer and their loved ones. On MyOvarianCancerTeam, more than 6,400 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with ovarian cancer.

Are you wondering if your vaginal discharge signals ovarian cancer? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

Posted on October 6, 2023
All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.

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Danielle Leonardo, M.D. is a board-certified specialist in internal medicine and medical oncology from the Philippines and has been practicing medicine since 2014. Learn more about her here
Sarah Winfrey is a writer at MyHealthTeam. Learn more about her here

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