The early warning signs of ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer can be difficult to detect early due to a lack of symptoms in the early stages.

The ovaries are small (normally about 3cm long) and located deep within the abdomen. Due to the location, this makes it challenging for a doctor to be able to feel tumours up to a certain size. Symptoms that do appear can also be similar to those of other benign and less harmful conditions, such as bloating or cramps. Due to these reasons, ovarian cancer often goes undetected or misdiagnosed until it has spread within or outside the pelvis and abdomen.

When diagnosed at an advanced  stage, ovarian cancer can be more difficult to treat as more extensive treatment may be required. When ovarian cancer is diagnosed when it’s confined to the ovary, it is more likely to be treated successfully, with a small chance of cancer recurrence.

Be familiar with your body and if you have one or more of the following symptoms, and they are persistent on most days over 2-4 weeks, then you should speak to a doctor.

  • Pelvic or abdominal pain: When tumours grow in the pelvis this can cause pressure and pain in the lower abdomen. This pain can be similar to menstrual cramps.
  • Feeling full quickly after eating a small amount, or loss of appetite: A build-up of fluid inside the abdomen, called ascites, can cause women to feel bloated, and change your usual appetite.
  • Frequent urination, or urgent need to urinate: The ovaries and bladder are close together, so the urinary tract can be affected by ovary health. Ascites in the pelvis can compress the bladder, causing women to feel like they have to urinate more frequently. You may also feel like you need to urinate, but when you attempt this, only a small amount (or sometimes nothing) may come out.
  • Unexplained fatigue: There are many reasons you may feel tired, but if you can’t find a cause, it’s unusual for you and persistent, this could be a symptom.
  • Pain or pressure in the lower back or pelvis: Women with ovarian cancer can experience back pain when fluid accumulates in the pelvis or when the tumour spreads in the abdomen or pelvis, directly irritating or pushing against the lower back.
  • Bloating, increased abdominal size, and/or constipation: It can be normal to feel bloated, especially around the menstrual cycle, however consistent bloating that lasts every day for up to three weeks should be investigated.
  • Indigestion, nausea or upset stomach: It’s possible to experience frequent heartburn or gas, which can make you feel unwell.
  • Pain while having sexual intercourse: If this is painful, it could be because there is a tumour pushing into the vagina, or hormonal changes that lead to vaginal dryness, which can cause discomfort.
  • Menstrual changes: Changes in a woman’s menstrual cycle, such as more painful periods, an irregular cycle or heavier bleeding than normal can be a symptom of ovarian cancer. If you are on the oral contraceptive pill, and start to experience pain or irregular cycles, this could be a warning sign. If you are postmenopausal, any vaginal bleeding should be investigated promptly.
  • Weight loss: Sudden weight loss that is not planned (your diet or exercise habits have not changed, and you can’t identify other reasons) can be a warning sign of ovarian cancer.

Uterus DiagramKeep in mind these symptoms can also be due to a variety of other conditions, but persistent and regular symptoms should be examined. No matter what the cause, generally it’s always easier to treat symptoms when caught early (for both benign and more serious conditions).

Ovarian Cancer Australia have a symptom diary, this can be downloaded and completed prior to your appointment to help your doctor have a better understanding of your symptom frequency and severity.

Read my blog article about how ovarian cancer is diagnosed.

For more information on diagnosing and treating ovarian cancer, visit the Ovarian Cancer page.

If you are concerned about any of these symptoms and wish to discuss them with a Gynaecological Oncologist, please enquire about an appointment.

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