Text: Ovarian cancer is easy to miss at the best of times. Any symptoms don't wait. Get checked. Teal background. Heart with scar logo in white. Portrait of woman during chemotherapy.

What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?


Common symptoms include

  • Increase in tummy size
  • Bloating
  • Abdominal/back/pelvic pain
  • Needing to pee more often or urgently
  • Bowel changes
  • Fatigue

But any of the symptoms below could be an indication of ovarian cancer if they last longer than two weeks.

Especially if they are new, unusual or getting worse.

  • Feeling full after eating only a few bites or loss of appetite 
  • Diarrhoea, constipation, bowel or rectum feels full, change in bowel habits, constant urge to have a bowel movement, painful or burning bowel movements, rectal pain, painful defecation
  • Bloating, distension of abdomen, clothes around the waist feel too tight, feel an abdominal mass
  • Weight loss not because of dieting
  • Nausea, vomiting, heartburn, gas, burping, indigestion
  • Increased urinary frequency, need to urinate urgently, pressure on the bladder, leaking urine, burning sensation when urinating, need to urinate but unable to do so, unable to empty bladder completely, feeling full after urinating
  • Vaginal discharge, bleeding, spotting, deep pain on intercourse
  • Discomfort or pain in abdomen, pelvic region, or lower back

Ovarian cancer symptoms can be vague. The symptoms one person experiences may be different to what someone else experiences.

Can Ovarian Cancer be Misdiagnosed?

Unfortunately because the symptoms of ovarian cancer can overlap with more common medical conditions - it can be misdiagnosed. One North American study found that 80% of people with ovarian cancer were initially told another condition was responsible for their symptoms. Conditions ovarian cancer can be mistaken for include irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or constipation, gastritis, stress, depression and urinary tract infections (UTIs).

Did you know?

Ovarian cancer is the

5th

Most common cause of cancer deaths in women

1 in 4

Wait over 6 months to get a correct diagnosis

When should someone be tested for ovarian cancer?

There is no screening program for ovarian cancer*. A cervical smear only checks for cervical cancer.

If women/people born with ovaries experience any symptoms - a CA-125 blood test and pelvic/transvaginal ultrasound can be used to check for ovarian cancer. 

Before ordering tests, a doctor may ask if they can perform a pelvic (internal) exam to feel for abnormalities. A pelvic exam can give the doctor extra information about the likelihood of ovarian cancer but a normal pelvic exam does not rule out ovarian cancer.

During a pelvic exam a doctor will insert two lubricated and gloved fingers inside the vagina and use their other hand to gently press down on the area they are feeling. It should not be painful. A support person can be present during the procedure. 

Pelvic exam depiction

Terese Winslow, U.S. Govt. has certain rights

Access to funded ultrasounds in the public system varies across the country. People can ask to be seen privately if this is a concern. 

If both the CA-125 blood test and ultrasound are negative, in addition to investigating other causes, a doctor might repeat the blood test 4-12 weeks later.**

It is important to remember most people with symptoms do not have ovarian cancer but if testing does find cancer, early detection will make it easier to treat.

There are Many Different Types of Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian Cancer is the name given to cancer that develops in the ovary, fallopian tube or peritoneum (lining of the abdomen). Ovarian cancer isn't one cancer - it's an umbrella term that encompasses high-grade serous, low-grade serous, mucinous, endometrioid, clear cell, mixed epithelial, germ cell and stromal and borderline (low-malignant potential) tumours and more.

What are the Risk Factors for Ovarian Cancer?

Family History

The most significant individual risk factor for people born with ovaries, is a family history of cancer. The BRCA 1/2 mutations and HNPCC (Lynch Syndrome) are associated with up to a 66% lifetime risk of ovarian cancer. People with a family history of ovarian, breast, pancreatic or colorectal cancer should discuss whether genetic testing is appropriate with their doctor. Hereditary ovarian cancer may be preventable.

However 9 out of 10 people with ovarian cancer have NO family history

Factors that Mildly Alter Risk

Reduced Risk

  • Oral contraceptive use
  • Healthy weight
  • Giving birth

Increased risk

  • Older age (but some types of ovarian cancer are more common in younger women)
  • Endometriosis

Regardless of risk factors, any person born with ovaries who experiences symptoms for two weeks or longer could have ovarian cancer.

Age and Ovarian Cancer

In general ovarian cancer is more common in older age. Half of all people with ovarian cancer will be in their 60s or older when they are diagnosed (like breast cancer).

However, certain types of ovarian cancer are much more likely in younger age. Ovarian cancers like low-grade serous and germ cell carcinoma.

In New Zealand approximately 1 in 8 people diagnosed with ovarian cancer are under the age of 45.

Younger age is a risk factor for delayed diagnosis.

Share the symptoms:

Most wahine are unable to name any symptoms of ovarian cancer. Check out our symptoms resources for social media posts and posters to help us raise awareness.

For more information:

* There is some evidence screening may be of benefit in high risk women if you are known to carry the BRCA mutation. You should speak with your doctor to determine what is appropriate for you.
** as per the Detecting Ovarian Cancer Early (DOvE) study

If your symptoms do not resolve, and your tests are negative for ovarian cancer, speak to your doctor. Other cancers with overlapping symptoms include endometrial cancer, bowel cancer, pancreatic cancer, liver cancer, kidney cancer, stomach cancer and bladder cancer.