Can bloating — or an uncomfortable feeling of fullness in your belly — be a sign of ovarian cancer?
It’s normal to experience some bloating, especially after eating gassy foods or around the time of your menstrual period. But, persistent bloating that doesn’t go away is actually one of the most common symptoms of ovarian cancer.
Bloating that’s related to ovarian cancer may cause visible swelling in your abdomen. Your belly might feel full, puffy, or hard. You may also have other symptoms, like weight loss.
Read on to learn more about the relationship between bloating and ovarian cancer, plus other causes of bloating.
If you have ovarian cancer, your bloating is likely caused by ascites. Ascites is when fluid builds up in your abdomen.
Ascites often form when cancer cells spread to the peritoneum. The peritoneum is the lining of your abdomen.
They can also develop when cancer blocks part of your lymphatic system, which causes fluid to build up because it can’t drain out normally.
Bloating is one of the first symptoms of ovarian cancer that you may notice, but it’s usually considered a sign of advanced disease.
Other symptoms of ovarian cancer
Recognizing early symptoms of ovarian cancer is important because earlier diagnosis may improve outlook. However, the disease is often found at a late stage when the cancer has spread to other areas of the body.
Around only 20 percent of ovarian cancer cases are diagnosed in the early stages.
Besides bloating, ovarian cancer can cause:
- pelvic or belly pain
- frequent urination or trouble urinating
- feeling full after eating only a little
- back pain
- upset stomach
- pain during sex
- changes in your menstrual period, such as heavy or irregular bleeding
- weight loss
While bloating may be a sign of ovarian cancer, there are many other possible — and more likely — reasons for abdominal bloating. These include:
An excess buildup of gas in your intestines can lead to abdominal bloating. Gas is normal, but can be uncomfortable if it begins to build up.
If you’re constipated, you have trouble emptying your bowels. In addition to bloating, constipation can lead to:
- infrequent bowel movements
- stomach cramps
- abdominal pain
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
IBS is a common intestinal disorder that can cause:
- other symptoms
Gastroparesis is a condition that causes a delayed emptying of the stomach.
In addition to bloat, it can lead to a loss of appetite, unexplained weight loss, and nausea or vomiting.
Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)
People with SIBO have an excessive number of gut bacteria in their small intestines.
You’re more likely to have SIBO if you’ve had intestinal surgery or have IBS with diarrhea.
Many women report feeling bloated during their menstrual cycle or ovulation.
Other symptoms may include:
- breast pain
- food cravings
Other things may also make you feel bloated, such as:
- eating too much
- consuming a diet high in sodium or sugar
- drinking soda
- weight gain
- taking certain medications
Several other intestinal disorders can cause stomach bloating, too.
While persistent bloating is one of the most prevalent signs of ovarian cancer, studies show many women don’t see their doctor when they have this symptom.
In fact, a survey conducted in the UK found only one-third of women would go to their doctor if they experienced constant bloating.
You should see your doctor if your bloating:
- doesn’t go away
- is severe
- gets worse
- is accompanied by other symptoms
Bloating that lasts for up to three weeks is not normal, and is a sign that you should see your doctor.
It’s also a good idea to get checked out by your physician if you’re concerned about your bloating or if it interferes with your daily activities.
If you experience persistent bloating, your doctor might want to run some tests to figure out what’s going on.
These may include:
- A physical exam. Your healthcare provider might examine and tap on your abdomen to feel for fluid, swelling, or a mass.
- Blood tests. Certain lab tests can be ordered to look for abnormal markers, such as a complete blood count (CBC) or a cancer antigen 125 (CA-125) test.
- Imaging tests. Your doctor may order an ultrasound, MRI, or CT scan to see inside your abdomen or other parts of your body.
- Colonoscopy. This test involves inserting a long tube into the rectum so your physician can look inside your bowels.
- Upper endoscopy. In an endoscopy, a thin scope is inserted into your upper digestive tract to look at the esophagus, stomach, and part of the small intestine.
- Stool sample. A stool analysis is sometimes done to help diagnose certain conditions that affect the digestive tract.
- Other tests. Depending on the suspected cause, your doctor might order other tests.
You can help prevent or manage bloating by treating the underlying condition that’s causing your belly to swell. Your doctor may recommend certain lifestyle changes or medications, depending on your diagnosis.
If your bloating is due to gas, you might want to avoid certain foods, such as:
- dairy products
- certain chewing gums
Additionally, it’s a good idea to eat slower, so you don’t swallow too much air. Also, try to consume smaller meals throughout the day.
Ask your doctor about an eating plan that can help you feel less bloated.
Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, like Pepto-Bismol, Beano, or activated charcoal, may help treat bloating that’s caused by gas. Your doctor might also prescribe a prescription medicine to relieve your discomfort.
Treatment for ovarian cancer bloat
If you have bloating in your abdomen due to ovarian cancer, treatment like chemotherapy may be used to help reduce the fluid buildup and lessen your symptoms.
Your physician might also be able to drain some of the fluid to help relieve some of your discomfort.
Bloating is common in women. Most of the time, this symptom isn’t related to cancer, especially if you don’t have other symptoms or only experience it from time to time.
If your bloating becomes persistent, it’s a good idea to see your doctor.