Ovarian Cancer Symptoms

What are the common symptoms of ovarian cancer?

Ovarian Cancer is a disease where some of the cells in one or both ovaries start to grow abnormally and develop into cancer. The ovaries are made up of germ cells, stromal cells and epithelial cells and each of these are susceptible to different cancers.

What are the common symptoms of ovarian cancer?

It is important to note that the symptoms of ovarian cancer are often vague and can be similar to the symptoms of many other conditions that can be part of everyday life. If any of these symptoms are experienced in an unusual way or persist, it is important to discuss them with your GP.

  • Abdominal bloating/feeling full
  • Abdominal or back pain
  • Appetite loss or feeling full quickly
  • Changes in toilet habits
  • Unexplained weight loss or weight gain
  • Indigestion or heartburn
  • Fatigue

Where does ovarian cancer usually start?

Ovarian cancer is the growth of malignant, or cancer cells in one or both ovaries and is often accompanied by the spread of malignant cells to surrounding organs in the abdominal cavity. Research suggests that many epithelial ovarian cancers start in the fallopian tubes.

There are different types of ovarian cancer, which can all start in different areas of the sex organ:

  • Epithelial ovarian cancers are derived from cells covering the surface of the ovary and comprise over 90% of cases.
  • Germ cell ovarian cancers arise from the eggs within the ovary and can also be classified into several subtypes of cancer.
  •  Sex-cord stromal ovarian cancers originate from the tissue that releases female hormones.
  • Borderline ovarian cancers are a group of epithelial tumours that are not as malignant as the epithelial cancers. They generally have a better outcome, whether diagnosed early or late.

How fast does ovarian cancer spread?

Ovarian cancer can spread to the other parts of the body by shedding cancerous cells into the abdominal cavity. These cells then attach to the abdominal lining and continue to grow. There are few physical barriers within the abdominal cavity, and because of this, the cancer can spread very quickly.

Ovarian cancer usually spreads to:

  • Organs, tissue and muscle: Cancerous (malignant) cells can spread to the bowel, bladder, liver, omentum (the fatty tissue hanging from the stomach and intestines), and diaphragm (a sheet of muscle beneath the lungs).
  • Lymph glands: Ovarian cancer may also spread via the lymph glands which are part of the immune system. These glands are all over the body, but it is those in the pelvis, around the aorta, and in the groin and neck that are usually affected by ovarian cancer.
  • Bloodstream: Ovarian cancer can also spread via the bloodstream or through the diaphragm, affecting the lungs and causing fluid to collect.

How is ovarian cancer detected and diagnosed?

There is currently no screening or early detection test available for ovarian cancer. Therefore, diagnosing ovarian cancer can be difficult when symptoms can be commonly mistaken for other conditions. This is why the vast majority of women are diagnosed at an advanced stage.

A number of tests may be done to investigate symptoms of ovarian cancer and confirm a diagnosis, however, the only way to definitively diagnose ovarian cancer is by taking a tissue sample during surgery. Common tests include:

  • Physical examination of the abdomen and pelvis, including rectal examination. 
  • Imaging of the pelvis and abdomen using transvaginal ultrasound, abdominal ultrasound, computed tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans or positron emission tomography (PET) scans.
  • Chest X-rays.
  • Blood tests to check for tumour markers such as CA125, and to measure complete blood count and levels of chemicals in the blood.
  • Use of scopes to see inside the gastrointestinal tract.
  • Biopsy – where a small sample of tissue is removed to be examined under a microscope. This is usually done as part of the initial surgery because the only way to confirm a diagnosis of ovarian cancer is through an operation. The surgeon will also take samples of any fluid in the abdomen.

What to do if you’re experiencing the symptoms?

If one or two symptoms are experienced such as abdominal pain, and/or fatigue, this does not mean you have ovarian cancer. However, a greater combination of symptoms, or symptoms that are unusual and persistent should be investigated by a medical professional. Knowing what to look for, as well as when you should be consulting your GP, is currently the best approach for individuals concerned about ovarian cancer.

As there is no screening or early detection test available for ovarian cancer, it is usually detected by a combination of several tests and examinations. The final diagnosis always requires the pathological analysis of a tissue sample, through surgery. 

Help scientists find new ways to diagnose and treat ovarian cancer

ACRF awarded a $2 million grant to help establish the ACRF Cancer Discovery Accelerator at Adelaide’s Centre for Cancer Biology.

This game-changing program will help expand the research expertise and capabilities in South Australia and across the continent. The new technologies include the latest genome sequencing equipment and a super high-resolution microscope, enabling researchers to develop powerful new methods for measuring proteins in individual cancer cells. This work will address a major challenge in the diagnosis of ovarian cancer, and how it is often difficult to diagnose without an early detection test being available.

ACRF is committed to backing the brilliant ideas needed to find new ways to prevent, detect and treat all types of cancer, so that we can reach our vision of a world without this devastating disease.

By donating to ACRF, you are helping to provide scientists with the tools, technology and infrastructure they need to accelerate cancer research and find ways to detect ovarian cancer early. Click here to see donation options or make a donation today.


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