8 Early Signs of Ovarian Cancer

Recognizing the symptoms of ovarian cancer can lead to a diagnosis in an earlier, more curable stage.

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Ovarian cancer is the fifth most-deadly type of cancer among people with ovaries, and roughly 20,000 people in the United States are diagnosed yearly.

The ovaries, reproductive glands, are made up of three different types of cells that can all develop into a cancerous tumor:

  • Epithelial cells
  • Germ cells
  • Stromal cells

However, the cells exist on a microscopic level in the earliest stages of ovarian cancer, so the condition is challenging to catch.

Health spoke to gynecologists about the importance of diagnosing ovarian cancer as soon as possible, as well as early signs of ovarian cancer and what they mean.

Why Is It Important To Look for Early Signs of Ovarian Cancer?

Recognizing the symptoms of ovarian cancer can lead to a diagnosis in an earlier, more curable stage. The most important thing, according to Rebecca Brightman, MD, assistant clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive science at Mount Sinai, is listening to your body.

"Women, in general, know what's normal for them," Dr. Brightman told Health. "And that, for me, is one of the more helpful things in my practice. If someone comes in saying, 'This is not normal, there is a change,' then that person needs to be evaluated."

It's important to listen to your body and go to a healthcare provider if you notice something abnormal because most ovarian cancer cases are diagnosed in the later stages.

"About one in five women that have ovarian cancer, by rule of thumb, will be diagnosed at an early stage," Mary Rosser, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia Medical School, told Health. "The benefit of being diagnosed early is that you have [a better chance at] survival because you'll have earlier, better treatment."

Around 94% of patients diagnosed with ovarian cancer live more than five years following their diagnosis when the cancer is found sooner rather than later.

Early Signs of Ovarian Cancer

Bloating

Bloating is the main symptom that puts medical experts on high alert, said Dr. Rosser. Researchers of a 2020 study found that bloating was one of the symptoms associated with 89% of earlier ovarian cancer stages.

Whenever a person came into her office with bloating, Dr. Rosser said that she checked to make sure there was an up-to-date colonoscopy if the patient was over 45. Dr. Rosser noted that she also completed transabdominal and transvaginal ultrasounds to examine the reproductive organs in those cases.

What Is a Transvaginal Ultrasound?

A transvaginal ultrasound is a test that healthcare providers give along with a complete pelvic exam as part of screening for ovarian cancer. During the test, the provider puts an ultrasound wand in the vagina. The wand uses sound waves to help the provider get a look at a person's uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries and find any tumors in an ovary.

Increased Satiety

Ascites, the fluid buildup that causes some ovarian cancer patients to feel bloated, can cause trouble eating and make you feel full quickly. This increased satiety from belly swelling is also accompanied by weight loss.

"There's fluid in their abdomen; there are frequently lesions, you know, implant lesions all over their bowel, and something potentially pressing against their bladder," said Dr. Brightman. As a result, you feel full sooner and eat less over time.

Indigestion

Indigestion is another stomach-related symptom that can be one of the early signs of ovarian cancer. The authors of a 2018 study noted that indigestion was among "persistent, nonspecific symptoms in the months before diagnosis" in women with ovarian cancer.

Individuals can also experience heartburn since indigestion can sometimes be associated with heartburn. Ultimately, indigestion and general discomfort in the abdomen, including bloating and constipation, can result from where the tumors are located.

Cramps

Tensions growing in the pelvis are not uncommon to cause pain in the lower abdomen. And since the discomfort can feel similar to period cramps, many assume the tummy troubles are benign (or harmless).

Since half of the people diagnosed with ovarian cancer are over 63 and likely post-menopausal, cramping is another sign that medical experts flag. "Especially in a post-menopausal woman, if there are menstrual signs like cramps or bleeding, though I've never really seen [bleeding], then we want to evaluate ASAP," said Dr. Brightman.

Back Pain

Back pain is another symptom to look out for in regard to ovarian cancer. The authors of a 2016 article noted that 72% of 1,709 women with ovarian cancer experienced symptoms, including back pain for three or more months before their diagnosis.

"Because many of us get back pain at one time or another, the key is to report new pain that doesn't go away," said Marleen Meyers, MD, an oncologist at New York University's Langone Medical Center, "especially if it is not related to physical activity that may have strained your back."

The Urge To Pee

Urinary symptoms, including feeling like you need to pee and needing to pee more often, have been associated with early signs of ovarian cancer.

Tumors in the pelvic area can affect the urinary tract in a few ways, including compressing parts of it. Dr. Brightman said the urge to go comes from "the cancer pressing near the ureters that bring the fluid from the kidneys into the bladder."

Of note, it's a good idea to see a healthcare provider to determine the cause of frequent urination or the feeling you need to go. It can be a symptom of several other conditions, such as urinary tract infections (UTIs), overactive bladder syndrome, or urethra swelling and infection.

Bleeding

Irregular bleeding is most common among people with ovarian stromal tumors, accounting for only 1% of all ovarian cancers. Stromal tumors often produce estrogen, which can cause period-like bleeding, even after menopause.

Since the bleeding is only a symptom of 1% of ovarian cancer cases, said Dr. Brightman, it's not high up on the list of signs to look out for.

Difficulty Breathing

Another effect of ascites is that they can cause shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. Additionally, if tumors grow larger, they may begin to press against the lungs and obstruct a patient's ability to inhale and exhale. These breathing troubles can start and continue into late-stage ovarian cancer.

A Quick Review

It's important to find ovarian cancer as soon as possible, as it may not present with any initial symptoms. However, there are a few early signs of ovarian cancer, such as back pain, needing to urinate urgently, and bloating. If you have any of the early symptoms of the condition or are worried about the health of your ovaries, consult a healthcare provider.

Updated by
Anthea Levi
A woman with brown hair and a white t-shirt.
Anthea Levi is a registered dietitian (RD) and freelance reporter with more than 6 years of experience writing for major health outlets including Health magazine, BuzzFeed, Eat This, Not That!, and Livestrong.
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