Early Ovarian Cancer Signs May Include Common Stomach Complaints
August 12, 2022
Though it is less common than breast cancer, ovarian cancer causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system. That’s due, in part, to the location of your ovaries. Your ovaries are two small, almond-shaped organs on either side of your uterus. They’re located deep within the abdominal cavity.
According to the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer are usually vague or silent, and only 19 percent of ovarian cancers are early-stage at diagnosis.
“Because the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer are often ambiguous or mistaken as something else, such as gastrointestinal distress, the majority of ovarian cancer cases are not detected until they are at an advanced stage,” says University Hospitals Gynecologic Oncology provider Sarah Lynam, MD. “This makes it much more difficult to treat.”
That is why it is so important to be aware of what the signs are, so you can recognize when something is unusual and discuss it with your doctor.
Most Common Signs and Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer
It’s easy to overlook the early signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer because they’re similar to other common illnesses, or they tend to come and go, explains Dr. Lynam.
These early-stage ovarian cancer symptoms may include:
- Bloating or constipation
- Indigestion, trouble eating or feeling full quickly
- Urinary symptoms such as urgency (always feeling like you have to go) or frequency (having to go often)
- Pelvic pain
Five Categories of Early Ovarian Cancer Symptoms
To make it easier to understand what you might be experiencing, you can categorize the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer in five different ways:
Pain: Many women with ovarian cancer say pain is one of the first symptoms they experienced. The pain will occur in your abdomen or pelvis. It often occurs during sex.
Gastrointestinal problems: Most women with ovarian cancer have previous abdominal or gastrointestinal complaints. According to Dr. Lynam, this often causes a delay in diagnosis because neither patients nor physicians recognize these early warning signs and symptoms, including:
- Change in bowel habits
- Fluid in the abdomen
- Indigestion or nausea
Ovarian cancer is sometimes mistaken for irritable bowel syndrome, but the signs and symptoms of IBS that do not occur with ovarian cancer include:
- Changes in the stool frequency and consistency
- Passing mucus from the rectum
- The feeling of being unable to empty the bowels
Abdominal abnormalities: If you’re feeling a lump in your abdomen, take it seriously.
“If you notice an unusual lump or mass in your abdominal or pelvic area, it is important to be evaluated by your doctor,” said Dr. Lynam. While it may end up being harmless, it is one potential sign of ovarian cancer.
Whole body issues: The signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer include some that may affect your whole body, not just one particular area. These are cancer-related fatigue and loss of appetite.
Some of the signs of cancer-related fatigue include:
- Tired feeling that does not get better with rest; the fatigue keeps recurring or becoming severe
- Being more tired than usual during or after an activity
- Feeling tired and it’s not related to an activity
Even though fatigue is a troublesome symptom, doctors and nurses don’t focus on it, and patients and caregivers seldom report it.
Weight loss: The residual effect of appetite loss is weight loss. Weight loss is common with more advanced ovarian cancers but may also be an early symptom related to this sense of fullness in the abdominal or pelvic region.
When to See Your Doctor
Dr. Lynam suggests seeing your doctor if you’re experiencing any of the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer, especially if you have some of the risk factors like:
- A family history of ovarian cancer
- Genetic mutations of genes associated with breast and ovarian cancer syndromes, such as BRCA1 or BRCA2
- A personal history of breast, uterine or colon cancer
The exact cause of ovarian cancer is unknown. So it’s important to pay attention to what your body is telling you. An early diagnosis is critical, when the disease is most easily treated.
The American Cancer Society recommends seeing your doctor or gynecologist if you experience these symptoms more than 12 times a month. Your doctor will most likely want to do a pelvic exam if ovarian cancer is suspected.