Early Warning Signs of Ovarian Cancer

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), early warning signs of ovarian cancer include:

  1. Unusual vaginal bleeding (this symptom is particularly important if it occurs after menopause)
  2. Unusual vaginal discharge
  3. Pain or pressure in the belly or pelvic area
  4. Frequent bloating
  5. Abdominal or back pain
  6. Feeling full too quickly after eating
  7. Having difficulty eating
  8. Frequent or urgent need to urinate
  9. Frequent or urgent constipation

Because so many of these early signs of ovarian cancer can be dismissed as benign, the CDC recommends that women pay close attention to their bodies and know what seems normal for themselves. If a woman experiences unusual vaginal bleeding, the agency recommends seeing a doctor right away. If any of the other symptoms last for more than two weeks, the agency recommends seeing a doctor at that point.

Approximately 12 women out of every 100,000 will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer this year, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The agency estimates that 14,080 women will die from ovarian cancer in 2017, accounting for 2.3 percent of all cancer-related deaths.

Women with a family history of ovarian cancer carry a higher risk of developing the disease. Women with certain genetic mutations such as BRCA1 or BRCA2 also carry a higher risk of ovarian cancer, NCI reported.

What About Screening? 

At present, there’s no reliable way to screen for ovarian cancer in women who do not exhibit any of the early warning signs or symptoms.

Earlier this summer, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (PSTF) issued a draft recommendation stating the potential harm of ovarian cancer screenings can outweigh the benefit for women in the general population.

"The task force found that screening women without signs or symptoms of ovarian cancer does not decrease the number of deaths from the disease, and may lead to unnecessary surgeries," Dr. Maureen Phipps said in a PSTF news release.

The task force, an independent, volunteer panel of experts backed by Congress and the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, noted that no major medical organizations recommend screening for ovarian cancer among women in the general population.

Current methods for screening may indicate that a healthy woman has cancer when, in fact, she does not. These false-positive results may lead to unneeded major surgery to remove one or both ovaries in the patient, the task force noted.

"Therefore, the task force recommends against screening for ovarian cancer in women who have no signs or symptoms, and who are not at high risk for ovarian cancer," Dr. Phipps said.

What Happens If I Do Exhibit Symptoms? 

If you do exhibit early warning signs of ovarian cancer, the CDC recommends seeing a doctor so they may diagnose the cause. The symptoms may or may not be related to cancer.

Similarly, diagnostic tests can be used to check a patient who may be at high risk for ovarian cancer, such as women with BRCA1 or BRCA2.

Among the ovarian cancer diagnostic tests to ask about, the CDC states that patients can ask their doctor about the following: a rectovaginal pelvic exam, a transvaginal ultrasound, or a CA-125 blood test. These tests can help determine if ovarian cancer is present and, more importantly, next steps to take if treatment becomes necessary.