What Are the Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer?

December 22, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Elizabeth K. Lee, MD

Key Takeaway: Ovarian cancer can be hard to identify, but there are symptoms you should be aware of. It’s important to speak with a doctor about screening if you believe you have an increased risk for developing cancer.

In its early stages, ovarian cancer can be hard to detect; symptoms can go unnoticed or may be attributed to other, more common health problems. However, symptoms do exist and can include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Bloating
  • Abdominal or pelvic pain
  • Frequent urination
  • Changes to bowel habits
  • Feeling full quickly
  • Menstrual changes

Typically, symptoms worsen over time.

While there is no proven screening method for early-stage ovarian cancer and detection is difficult, women should remember that certain risk factors can increase the chance of developing the disease.

Who is at risk for ovarian cancer?

Some people have a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer than others. This includes:

  • Those with BRCA1/BRCA2 gene mutations
  • Women having problems with fertility
  • Women who have a family history of breast, ovarian, or colorectal cancer
  • Women who have had hormone replacement therapy
  • Women experiencing late onset of menopause
  • Women who have not had children

If reproductive cancers run in your family or you have health concerns, be sure to consult your physician.

How to get tested for ovarian cancer

Tests that are used to diagnose ovarian cancer include one or more of the following:

  • Pelvic exam
  • An ultrasound scan, either abdominal or transvaginal (transvaginal ultrasound is able to see the ovaries much better than an abdominal ultrasound)
  • Biopsy
  • A CA-125 assay blood test, which is used to measure a substance in the blood called CA-125 (a tumor marker that is often found to be elevated in the blood of women with ovarian cancer). This test is used to monitor the progress of treatment.
  • CT scan: When the presence of ovarian cancer is detected, a CT scan or another radiologic test is performed to determine the extent of the disease. If the disease appears resectable (able to be removed through surgery), surgery is performed to make a definitive diagnosis and remove the tumor. If the disease does not appear to be resectable, a biopsy is performed to make a definitive diagnosis and determine the course of treatment.

Your doctor will work with you to determine which tests you will need, if any.

Can a pap smear detect ovarian cancer?

Though a pap smear is effective in early detection of cervical cancers, it isn’t a test for ovarian cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Ovarian cancers are rarely found through pap smears. When they are found through pap smears, it will usually be when the cancer is already at an advanced stage.

Can a blood test detect ovarian cancer?

Taking a blood test to measure the amount of CA-125 in the blood may help detect ovarian cancer, since women with the cancer may have high levels of this tumor marker.

While there is no proven screening method for early-stage ovarian cancer and detection is difficult, women should remember that certain risk factors can increase the chance of developing the disease, including BRCA1/BRCA2 gene mutations, problems with fertility, or having a family history of breast, ovarian, or colorectal cancer. It’s important to speak with a doctor about screening if you believe you have an increased risk for developing cancer.

About the Medical Reviewer

Elizabeth K. Lee, MD

Elizabeth Lee, MD, is a medical oncologist in the gynecologic oncology program at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. She also serves as the gynecologic oncology program's liaison to the Center for Cancer Therapeutics Innovation. Dr. Lee received her undergraduate degree from Yale University and completed her Doctor of Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. She completed an internal medicine residency at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and hematology/oncology fellowship at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr. Lee is engaged in clinical research efforts testing novel molecularly-targeted therapies in the treatment of ovarian and endometrial cancers and in translational studies evaluating mechanisms of treatment resistance.