Ovarian cancer symptoms typically aren’t noticeable in the early stages of disease. Even as the cancer progresses and causes symptoms, signs are often vague and can be easily mistaken for other conditions unrelated to cancer, like irritable bowel syndrome and constipation. Adding to the complexity is the fact that there is no reliable screening method for ovarian cancer, and the earlier it is diagnosed, the better the outcome. All of these factors underscore the importance of a woman being aware of changes in her body and promptly seeing a physician when she notices anything different.
Common symptoms of ovarian cancer
Early-stage ovarian cancer may produce no symptoms at all, or only mild or nondescript symptoms. That’s mainly because the ovaries are very small and located deep within the abdominal cavity, and small cellular changes usually don’t have a noticeable effect on the surrounding tissues or structures. However, as ovarian cancer spreads and begins pressing on the pelvis and distant lymph nodes and organs, a variety of symptoms can emerge. These symptoms range in severity, although the symptoms can become more painful as the cancer progresses further.
The most common ovarian cancer symptoms include:
- Abdominal bloating or swelling
- Pelvic pain, which may be mild or severe
- Back pain
- Indigestion and gas
- Constipation and other changes in bowel habits
- Menstrual cycle changes
- Unexplained weight loss
Less common symptoms of ovarian cancer
Some signs of ovarian cancer are less common than others. While the following symptoms are associated with ovarian cancer, they tend to affect a smaller number of women:
- Unusual vaginal bleeding or discharge
- Frequent or urgent urination
- Loss of appetite
- Extreme fatigue
- Acid reflux symptoms like chest pain and heartburn
- Quickly feeling uncomfortably full after eating
- Pain during sex
Still, it’s important to take all possible symptoms of ovarian cancer seriously and promptly seek a medical opinion if they occur. This is especially true for people who have an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer, such as women who are older, obese or have a family history of ovarian malignancies.
Symptoms of ovarian cancer after menopause
The majority of ovarian cancer cases are diagnosed after menopause, which typically takes place during a woman’s late 40s or early 50s. Menopause refers to the timeframe when a woman’s ovaries stop producing eggs and is usually confirmed after one year without a menstrual period.
The symptoms of ovarian cancer after menopause are much the same as they are before menopause. Many women experience abdominal bloating, pelvic pain and changes in bowel habits. However, one notable ovarian cancer symptom among postmenopausal women is vaginal bleeding. Because menopause signifies the end of a woman’s period, any type of bleeding from the genital area is considered abnormal and should be promptly evaluated by an OB/GYN. (On the other hand, younger women with ovarian cancer may experience changes in the heaviness or timing of their menstrual cycles.) Vaginal bleeding after menopause is also a possible sign of uterine cancer—between 75% and 90% of people with this disease experience abnormal bleeding from the uterus.
Another common point of confusion is how to differentiate between the symptoms of menopause and ovarian cancer. They share a few possible signs—including painful sex, fatigue, weight changes and abdominal bloating—but it’s virtually impossible to know what’s behind these symptoms without a physician’s expertise and the results of diagnostic testing.
What does ovarian cancer feel like? Does it hurt?
Many women wonder if ovarian cancer hurts. Because every person and every cancer is different, the symptoms of ovarian cancer can vary widely, and some symptoms are more uncomfortable than others. Some women simply report feeling "off" for several months prior to receiving a diagnosis.
Bloating is one of the most common and noticeable signs of advanced ovarian cancer. Due to a buildup of fluid, a woman’s belly can become swollen and distended. The bloating may be painful or accompanied by an uncomfortable feeling of tightness around the abdomen, as well as indigestion and an increased need to pass gas. Additionally, this extra pressure on the stomach can cause a loss of appetite, while extra pressure on the lungs can cause shortness of breath.
In general, any sudden health change should raise a red flag, even if it would otherwise not cause concern. Since an early diagnosis is critical to achieving the best possible outcome, all women are urged to tell their physicians about any possible early signs of ovarian cancer that they are experiencing.
Does ovarian cancer always affect your menstrual cycle?
Ovarian cancer doesn’t always affect a woman’s menstrual cycle, especially when the cancer is in its earliest stages. However, ovarian cancer symptoms are often vague and may be ignored because they mimic the effects of the cyclic hormonal changes that occur naturally within your body due to menstruation.
When to see a gynecologic oncologist
A woman’s lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer is around one in 78. And although many possible ovarian cancer symptoms are commonly due to menstruation and other non-cancerous situations, it’s best to see an expert gynecologic oncologist if:
- Your symptoms begin suddenly.
- Your symptoms feel different than normal digestive or menstrual problems.
- Your symptoms persist for more than two weeks.
- You’re at an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.
In general, the presence of symptoms may not indicate cancer, but it is always advisable to seek help from your primary care physician or OB/GYN if you’re concerned. The number of symptoms that occur and their frequency often play a key role in diagnosis. Even if ovarian cancer isn’t to blame for symptoms, uncomfortable problems like indigestion and bloating still warrant timely medical treatment.
Moffitt Cancer Center's approach to ovarian cancer
Recognized among the top 1% of cancer centers by national experts, Moffitt Cancer Center is a trusted provider of ovarian cancer diagnostics and treatment. The multispecialty team at Moffitt’s gynecologic clinic focuses exclusively on malignancies that affect the female reproductive system, and our experts are readily available to all women for consultation. Whether you are facing new symptoms, looking for a second or third opinion or in need of symptom relief in conjunction with your current treatment plan, our skilled ovarian cancer team is here to assist you.
Moffitt is pleased to offer a complete range of ovarian cancer services, including genetic testing to assess hereditary risk, individualized supportive care from compassionate specialists and trailblazing clinical trials that are improving outcomes for patients today and into the future. In fact, Moffitt is Florida’s only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center—an honor that speaks directly to our commitment to research and innovation—and achieves cancer survival rates that are up to four times higher than national averages.
For the best cancer outcomes, choose Moffitt first. To learn more about Moffitt’s approach to ovarian cancer or request an appointment, please call 1-888-663-3488 or complete our new patient registration form online.
Medically reviewed by Mian Shahzad, MD, PhD, gynecologic oncologist
American Cancer Society: Signs & Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer
American Cancer Society: Ovarian Cancer Risk Factors
Cancer.net: Can Cancer Symptoms Be Mistaken for Menopause?