As women, it's essential to be aware of our bodies and recognize any unusual symptoms. If you have certain symptoms, you might worry that you have ovarian cancer. Ovarian cancer is the ninth most common cancer in women and is the fifth highest cause of cancer death in women. However, it's important to remember that many symptoms associated with ovarian cancer can also be related to various other health conditions.
There are several symptoms of ovarian cancer, including:
- Abdominal bloating that lasts for a week or more
- Abdominal or pelvic pain
- Unintentional weight loss
- Changes in bowel habits such as constipation, narrow stool or diarrhea
- Frequent or urgent urination
- Loss of appetite
- Feeling full soon after you start eating
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Extreme fatigue
But if you have any of these symptoms, take a step back before you convince yourself you have cancer. They could also be signs of a lot of other health conditions.
We spoke with Audra Zachman, a gynecologic oncology specialist with Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center at Banner Gateway Medical Center. She explained more about other conditions that could be mistaken for ovarian cancer.
1. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
What it is: IBS is a disorder that affects your digestive system. It’s common—much more common than ovarian cancer.
Symptoms of IBS: Abdominal pain and cramping, gas and bloating and diarrhea, constipation or both.
2. Colorectal cancer
What it is: Colorectal cancer is cancer that develops in your colon (colon cancer) or your rectum (rectal cancer). When colorectal cancer is spotted early, it’s highly treatable. That’s why colorectal cancer screening is so important.
Symptoms of colorectal cancer: In the early stages, you might not notice symptoms. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), symptoms can include a change in bowel habits, blood in your poop, diarrhea or constipation, a sensation that you don’t finish pooping, abdominal pain or cramping and unexplained weight loss.
3. Ovarian cysts
What they are: Ovarian cysts are small sacs that develop inside or on the surface of an ovary. They are usually full of fluid, and they are common.
Symptoms of ovarian cysts: Sometimes, you have little or no discomfort. But you could also notice pelvic aching or sharp pain on one side of your abdomen, a feeling of fullness or pressure and bloating.
What it is: Endometriosis is a condition where tissue similar to uterine tissue grows in other places. When you have your menstrual period, the blood from this tissue gets trapped inside your body.
Symptoms of endometriosis: Pelvic pain and cramping, pain when you have sex, pain when you pee or poop, heavy menstrual periods, bloating, infertility, fatigue, constipation, diarrhea and nausea.
5. Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
What it is: PMS is a collection of symptoms that women may notice before they get their menstrual period.
Symptoms of PMS: Bloating, fatigue, trouble sleeping, breast tenderness, headaches, mood swings and irritability.
6. Uterine fibroids
What they are: Uterine fibroids are growths that develop inside your uterus. They usually appear in the years when you are having your menstrual period.
Symptoms of uterine fibroids: Pelvic pressure or pain, long and heavy menstrual periods, constipation, peeing frequently, feeling like you’re not done peeing and backache.
7. Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
What it is: PID is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) where your fallopian tubes become inflamed.
Symptoms of PID: You may not have any symptoms with PID, but you could notice pain in your pelvis and abdomen, pain during sex, trouble peeing or peeing frequently, a vaginal discharge and vaginal bleeding between your periods or after sex.
8. Urinary tract infection (UTI)
What it is: A UTI is an infection that develops in the bladder, kidneys or urethra (the tube where urine leaves your body).
Symptoms of a UTI: Lower abdominal pain, fatigue, peeing more often than usual, pain when you pee and feeling like you’re not finished peeing.
9. Ectopic pregnancy
What it is: Ectopic pregnancy, also called extrauterine pregnancy, is when a fertilized egg grows outside the uterus. It almost always occurs inside a fallopian tube. An ectopic pregnancy is life-threatening and should be treated as an emergency.
Symptoms of ectopic pregnancy: Pain on one side of your pelvis, discomfort when you pee or poop, vaginal bleeding or discharge and a missed menstrual period.
What it is: Appendicitis is when your appendix gets inflamed and filled with pus. Your appendix is a small pouch on your large intestine. Appendicitis is an emergency.
Symptoms of appendicitis: Pain that often starts near the belly button and moves to the right side of your abdomen, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, fever and chills.
How to know if it’s ovarian cancer
See your doctor if you experience symptoms or have any signs of ovarian cancer or any of these other conditions. “If your doctor thinks you may have ovarian cancer, blood work can check for tumor markers and imaging can look for signs of cancer,” Zachman said.
In some cases, if those tests are concerning, your doctor may be able to draw fluid or take a sample of the suspicious tissue (biopsy) to make a diagnosis. Sometimes, a more extensive surgical intervention may be needed.
In general, women have a 1% lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer. However, some women are at higher risk. Risk factors for ovarian cancer include:
- Having a genetic mutation that increases the risk, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, which also increases your risk for breast cancer
- Having a family history of ovarian cancer
- Never stopping ovulating during your reproductive years (not becoming pregnant or using birth control that blocks ovulation)
- Having had certain fertility treatments
“It’s also important to keep in mind that a lot of ovarian cancers are discovered when you’re diagnosed with a blood clot, such as a deep vein thrombosis (DVT) or pulmonary embolism (PE),” Zachman said. “That’s because clotting factors are released from the cancer.”
Ovarian cancer is diagnosed at an average age of 63. “Many women stop seeing their gynecologist or having annual pelvic exams after menopause, but preventive screenings are important through all stages of life,” Zachman said.
The bottom line
Ovarian cancer’s symptoms can be similar to those of a lot of other health conditions. So, if you have any symptoms that you’re concerned about, it’s important to share them with your doctor. To connect with a health care professional who can evaluate your symptoms, reach out to Banner Health.