Ovarian cancer: signs and symptoms

Every March is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. In Northern Ireland it affects over 150 women each year

More awareness of ovarian cancer is needed
Ovarian cancer March is ovarian cancer awareness month

Ovarian cancer is one of the most common cancers in women, with almost 7,500 new cases a year in the UK. And with 4,100 deaths a year – 11 a day – it is the deadliest gynaecological cancer.

Around 150 woman in the north and 390 women in the Republic are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year.

Ovarian cancer is when abnormal cells in the ovary begin to grow and divide in an uncontrolled way. They eventually form a growth (tumour). If not caught early, cancer cells gradually grow into the surrounding tissues. And may spread to other areas of the body.

Ovarian cancer can affect women, some transgender men and non-binary people assigned female at birth.

What are the early warning signs of ovarian cancer?

It is known as ‘the silent killer’ because its symptoms can easily be mistaken for those of less serious conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, especially in the early stages. As a result, two thirds of cases are not picked up until the cancer has spread around the body, when it is very hard to treat.

Yet if it is detected in the earliest stage, more than 90 per cent of women survive for five years or more.

Ovarian cancer symptoms

The most common symptoms to watch for are:

  • bloating that doesn’t come and go
  • pelvic or abdominal pain most days
  • feeling full quickly when eating or loss of appetite
  • Needing the toilet frequently.

Others symptoms include indigestion and nausea, a change in bowel habits, back pain, vaginal bleeding, lethargy and weight loss.

Yet a recent poll found more than one woman in five mistakenly think smear tests, which screen for cervical cancer, also pick up ovarian cancer. Some experts think this means women are ignoring symptoms because they assume there is nothing to worry about.

The charity Target Ovarian Cancer advises women to see their GP if they feel constantly bloated and have other symptoms that don’t go away, especially if they are over 50 or have a family history of ovarian or breast cancer (as this can raise the risk of the disease).

Signs of ovarian cancer

IF you aren’t clear on the symptoms of ovarian cancer, you aren’t the only one. Charity Target Ovarian Cancer says only 3 per cent of women are confident in naming all the warning signs of the disease - and more awareness is urgently needed.

The four main symptoms are persistent bloating; pelvic or abdominal pain; feeling full or a loss of appetite and an increased need to urinate.

Ovarian cancer illustration.

But just one in five were able to identify bloating as a sign, according to the poll of 1,000 women across the UK.

Only 1 per cent were able to identify increased urinary urgency or frequency as a symptom, and just 3 per cent knew feeling full or a loss of appetite could be a sign of ovarian cancer.

Almost a third (32 per cent) knew that pelvic or abdominal pain was a symptom.

How is ovarian cancer diagnosed?

A CA125 (cancer antigen 125) blood test may be carried out as women with ovarian cancer tend to have higher levels of CA125 in their blood than women who do not have ovarian cancer. But CA125 can also be raised for other reasons that are not related to cancer so other tests are often needed to diagnose ovarian cancer.

A doctor could recommend an ultrasound scan to see if there are changes to the ovaries.

Other tests may have include:

  • a CT scan 
  • removing a small sample of cells or fluid from your ovaries (needle biopsy),
  • looking at your ovaries using a camera on the end of a tube through a small cut in your tummy (laparoscopy)
  • surgery to remove tissue or possibly your ovaries (laparotomy)

Survival rate

About 78 per cent of women with ovarian cancer live for at least 1 year after diagnosis. More than 60 per cnet live for at least 3 years after being diagnosed, and over 50 per cent of women with ovarian cancer are still alive at least 5 years after diagnosis.

Six things to know about ovarian cancer

1. It’s not a ‘silent killer’

Ovarian cancer is often falsely dubbed ‘the silent killer’, as people often believe it has no symptoms. The reality is that many women have been living with symptoms long before they go to the doctor and get a diagnosis.

2. The symptoms are subtle

That being said, the four main symptoms are often less obvious than, for example, breast cancer. As everyone has likely experienced these symptoms at some point or another, it can be difficult to tell if it’s a sign of ovarian cancer. The key is in the persistence of the symptoms and noticing if they don’t go away.

3. It affects young women too

Post-menopausal women who haven’t had any children, or are infertile, are most at risk of developing the disease, but it is also possible for younger women to develop it. Target Ovarian Cancer says that while most cases occur in women who have already gone through the menopause, around 1,000 women under 50 develop the disease each year.

4. A cervical smear test won’t detect it

According to 2019 research by Target Ovarian Cancer and YouGov, one in five women mistakenly think a cervical smear can detect ovarian cancer. The truth is there is no test for ovarian cancer, which is why women need to be diligent about catching the symptoms early.

If you’re concerned, downloading a symptom tracker from the app store can help you to record how often you’re urinating, how often you experience stomach pain and bloating, and any other changes that might be important for your doctor to know.

5. It’s not the same as cervical cancer

There are lots of different gynaecological cancers, including cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal and vulvar. Each of these cancers has different signs and symptoms.

6. It’s more common than you think

According to Cancer Research UK, each year in the UK there are approximately 7,500 new cases of ovarian cancer. As most women are diagnosed once the cancer has already spread, about 45 per cent will survive their cancer for five years or more. If you suspect you’re displaying the symptoms of ovarian cancer, speak to your GP.

More information

Cancer Research UK