Bloating or Ovarian Cancer? Six Common Symptoms of an Uncommon Disease


The risk of having any form of cancer is scary but ovarian cancer is scarier than most. A few things make it frightening. It’s hard to detect early and unlike breast, cervical, colon and some other types of cancers we don’t have any screening tests for it. And it is one of the deadlier cancer types.

But in June of 2007, the Gynecologic Cancer Foundation, the Society of Gynecologic Oncologists, National Ovarian Cancer Coalition (NOCC), and the American Cancer Society agreed on six symptoms that can help detect ovarian cancer earlier. If women and their health providers both know about them and pay attention to them.

By knowing these symptoms and remembering that ovarian cancer is most likely not the cause of them, you will be able to keep things in perspective avoid unnecessary worry.

6 Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer:

  1. Bloating
  2. Pelvic pain
  3. Abdominal pain
  4. Increased abdominal size
  5. Poor appetite or feeling full quickly
  6. Urinary frequency or urgency

4 Tips for Avoiding Unnecessary Worry:

  1. All women have these symptoms from time to time and they are only rarely caused by ovarian cancer – usually they are caused by uncomplicated and passing conditions.
  2. Listen to your body; wait until you have had one or more of these symptoms every day for several weeks and they are a change from how you’ve felt in the past before you decide it’s time to worry.
  3. Knowing what to look for gives you a reliable warning system. Now you know when to contact a health professional for further examination and testing.
  4. Watchful waiting for a few weeks will not change your long term prognosis or treatment success – so try not to panic. If you are concerned you might have ovarian cancer, then talk to your health professional about your concerns.

Tests Used to Diagnose Ovarian Cancer

  • A pelvic exam that includes both a bimanual vaginal and rectal examination.
  • Abdominal, pelvic and/or transvaginal ultrasound. Transvaginal is a more sensitive test and is being studied as a possible screening test for high risk women. In a transvaginal ultrasound a probe a little larger than a tampon is inserted in the vagina. No probe is inserted in an abdominal or pelvic ultrasound.
  • CA-125 is a blood test. It stands for “cancer antigen 125”. It measures a protein normally made by certain cells in the body including the fallopian tubes, uterus, cervix, ovaries, and the lining of the chest and abdominal cavities. The normal value for CA 125 is less than 35 kU /ml. A CA-125 is not recommended as a screening test for ovarian cancer. There has been a lot of controversy and misunderstanding about this test. See this page on the Women’s Cancer Network website for more about that.
  • CT scans or MRIs.
  • Chest x-rays
  • Barium enema x-rays
  • Colonoscopy
  • PET scans
  • Exploratory surgery and biopsies

Here are some additional links to more information about ovarian cancer and the 6 Symptoms:

American Cancer Society and the 6 Symptoms

This is a research study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association by the doctors who came up with the 6 Symptoms.

National Library of Medicine

Gilda Radner Familial Ovarian Cancer Registry

This information is offered for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, prescribe or treat. For that please seek direct care from a health professional.

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4 comments so far. (Post your own)

#1 | On July 16, 2008, Rose Taylor said:

I wanted to make a few comments..The information provided is very valuable for all women. It is vital when you do see your health care provider to know your family history. Most forms of ovarian cancer are not familial (90%), however 5-10% of cases are associated with hereditary factors. If for example you have two first degree relatives that have had either breast, or ovarian cancer you are at incresed risk for the disease. For example, my mother had ovarian cancer, and her sister had breast cancer this senerio places me at increased risk for ovarian cancer. Factors that suppress ovulation such as oral contraceptives, breast feeding, use of fertility drugs, and late menopause decrease the risk of ovarian cancer.
Thank you,
Rose Taylor, BSN.Graduate student at The George Washington University Family Nurse Practitioner program.

#2 | On July 19, 2008, Carla Mills said:

Hi Rose,

This is a very good point you make about hereditary cancers. As scientists contuniue to unravel our genetic code, our ability to predict future disease will get better and better. But, as you point out, in the case of ovarian cancer, 90% are not hereditary.

Given your family history, you should certainly remain under close surveliance by your health practitioner. Hopefully, if women and health professionals both know what to look for - whether there is a family history or not - changes can be detected sooner and necessary testing can be done.

Thanks for your commmet.

#3 | On September 21, 2008, Carla Mills said:

September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. Let’s take this month to honor and celebrate the brave survivors of this frightening disease and remember those we’ve lost. Let’s work for earlier detection methods and better treatments that will cure this dreadful disease. Let’s educate ourselves so we know when we need to seeK care from a health professional. And let’s all be careful out there!

#4 | On October 19, 2008, Miriam said:

Ovarian cancer is a scary thing with these symptoms that are so easily mistaken for something else. Good information, than you so much.

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