The Early Symptom of Ovarian Cancer You Could Be Missing, Experts Say

You should see a doctor if your body is sending you this subtle warning sign.

Sometimes our bodies send us warning signals that are difficult to decode or easy to brush off as no big deal. Even common and serious diseases like cancer, the leading cause of death worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), can come with a wide range of symptoms, some of which are obvious, like a lump, and others that are easy to miss, like weight loss. As with most potentially deadly diseases, early detection is key with cancer, and that means being aware of the symptoms and when you need to seek medical advice.

Ovarian cancer in particular is something women should learn the symptoms of. In 2021, more than 21,000 women are expected to receive an ovarian cancer diagnosis, nearly 14,000 of whom will die as a result, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). They note that ovarian cancer accounts "for more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system," largely because it often goes undiagnosed. To make sure you don't become one of those statistics, read on to find out the tell-tale symptom of ovarian cancer most women miss.

If you suffer from bloating on a daily basis, it could be an early symptom of ovarian cancer.

woman on couch with stomach pain
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It may be hard to decipher what's causing you to bloat, as the symptom could be associated with constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, a high-sodium diet, weight gain, your menstrual cycle, or simply gas, the experts at the Moffitt Cancer Center explain.

But fluid buildup due to ovarian cancer can also lead to bloating, according to the Moffitt Cancer Center. The symptom can occur when the cancer spreads and triggers the membrane (the peritoneum) that covers internal organs to produce fluid. Additionally, ovarian cancer can cause a lymph node blockage and increase blood pressure, both which could lead to excess fluid around the stomach.

"Persistently feeling bloated and full is one of the most common early signs of ovarian cancer," the medical experts at Rush University Medical Center explain. "And bloating accompanied by abdominal distension (visible swelling in your stomach) could be a red flag that there is a problem."

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Most women don't seek medical help for bloating.

woman gets a medical exam, wearing a mask
Geber86 / iStock

"Women tend to ignore early signs of ovarian cancer or think their symptoms are simply related to aging, weight gain or other less serious problems," says Amina Ahmed, MD, a gynecologic oncologist at Rush. "That's what makes ovarian cancer so difficult to detect early, when it is most curable."

YouGov and Target Ovarian Cancer, the U.K.'s leading ovarian cancer charity, conducted a poll of 1,142 women in 2018 and found that 50 percent of women with regular bloating consider the symptom normal and would not see a doctor for it.

The survey's findings suggest that most women would sooner change their diet if they noticed bloating rather than visit a doctor. "A probiotic yoghurt should not be preventing a woman from visiting the GP promptly if something is worrying her," Annwen Jones, the charity's chief executive, said in a statement at the time (via Evoke). "Women should not be risking their lives because of the enduring awareness gap around the symptoms of ovarian cancer."

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Women should look out for three other key symptoms of ovarian cancer, too.

woman on couch looking uncomfortable with stomach pain
stefanamer / iStock

Besides bloating being an indicator of ovarian cancer, there are three other common symptoms to look out for, according to Target Ovarian Cancer: abdominal pain, loss of appetite, and frequent urination.

In addition to these common symptoms, the cancer charity says women may also notice changes in bowel movements, extreme fatigue, unexplained weight loss, and bleeding after menopause. Symptoms can be frequent (more than 12 times a month), persistent, or new.

Not treating ovarian cancer early can have deadly consequences.

woman in hospital bed with hand on her head

The American Cancer Society says that if ovarian cancer is detected early, 94 percent of women live longer than five years after their diagnosis. But only 20 percent of ovarian cancers are found in the early stages, the ACS notes.

Thankfully, cancer can be found early through regular checkups and pelvic exams. The two tests which are used most often in ovarian cancer screenings are transvaginal ultrasounds, which use sound waves to check the pelvis, and blood tests, specifically to check for high levels of the protein CA-125. According to a new study published on May 12 in the journal The Lancet, researchers found that doing blood tests helped "pick up women with ovarian cancer earlier than in the control group where women had no screening."

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