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Ovarian Cancer - Symptoms

The early detection of ovarian cancer greatly increases the chances for successful treatment and survival. However, the symptoms of ovarian cancer are usually "silent," meaning that they are either subtle or do not present themselves until the disease has progressed to more advanced stages. However, recent research suggests that there may be common symptoms of ovarian cancer. Women should become familiar with the symptoms of ovarian cancer and see a physician if they experience a persistent symptom. All women 18 years of age and older should also receive annual pelvic exams.

Indigestion, nausea, or changes in bowel movements are the most common signs of ovarian cancer. Women who have ovarian cancer may or may not experience pelvic pain. The following symptoms may be associated with ovarian cancer:

  • Pelvic or abdominal pain, pressure, swelling, or discomfort
  • Vague, but persistent, gastrointestinal upsets such as gas, nausea, and indigestion
  • Frequency and/or urgency of urination in the absence of an infection
  • Unexplained changes in bowel habits
  • Unexplained weight gain or weight loss, particularly weight gain in the abdominal region
  • Pelvic and/or abdominal swelling, bloating, and/or feeling of fullness
  • Pain during intercourse
  • Ongoing fatigue
  • Leg pain
  • Unusual vaginal bleeding—a rare sign of ovarian cancer. More likely, vaginal bleeding is a sign of another type of abnormality. Bleeding may occur between menstrual periods. Heavier than normal menstrual bleeding, and menstrual bleeding that lasts longer than normal are considered unusual signs.

In a recent study published in the journal, Cancer, researchers from the University of Washington found that certain symptoms were more commonly associated with women diagnosed with ovarian cancer. To conduct their study, the researchers had women with and without ovarian cancer complete a survey that asked about certain symptoms such as indigestion, constipation, bleeding after menopause, and back pain. The study results showed that the women with ovarian cancer were more likely to report one or more of the 6 symptoms on the survey. Moreover, the women often experienced the symptom(s) 12 or more times per month.

The symptoms found in the study were:

  • pelvic or abdominal pain
  • abdominal bloating
  • urinary urgency (needing to get to a bathroom immediately)
  • urinary frequency (having to urinate often)
  • feeling full
  • difficulty eating

Though these, as well as the symptoms mentioned at the beginning of this article, may sometimes indicate the presence of ovarian cancer, they may also indicate benign (non-cancerous) ovarian conditions or other conditions. However, because at least one of the six symptoms in the study were shown to persist in women who were diagnosed with ovarian cancer, women who experience any of these symptoms are encouraged to see their physicians for follow up. Typically, physicians will first rule out more common problems before screening for ovarian cancer.

In June 2007, the Gynecologic Cancer Foundation, the Society of Gynecologic Oncologists, and American Cancer Society released the first-ever consensus statement on symptoms of ovarian cancer. The statement provides an agreement on symptoms commonly associated with ovarian cancer, based on the results of the study. It encourages almost daily for more than a few weeks should see their doctor, preferably a gynecologist.

Though these "silent" symptoms may sometimes indicate the presence of ovarian cancer, they may also indicate benign (non-cancerous) ovarian conditions or other conditions. Unfortunately, there are often no symptoms in the early stages of ovarian cancer. As the cancer grows, women may experience lower abdominal discomfort or swelling. However, symptoms do not always present themselves until the cancer has spread past the ovaries. Since several symptoms of ovarian cancer are associated with a variety of other conditions, many harmless, they are sometimes ignored even when they are present.

Women who are consistently experiencing one or more of the symptoms for ovarian cancer should talk to their physician about being tested for ovarian cancer. Additionally, all women over 18 years of age should have an annual physician performed pelvic examination. If ovarian cancer is suspected, physicians may order several tests. See the Diagnosing Ovarian Cancer section for more information.

Updated: January 10, 2008