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Early symptoms of ovarian cancer can include bloating, cramping, and abdominal swelling.

Since many conditions, like fluctuating hormones or digestive irritation, can cause these symptoms, sometimes they’re overlooked or mistaken for something else.

For this reason, it can sometimes seem like ovarian cancer symptoms appear out of nowhere, as if there were no warning signs.

We’ll take a look at symptoms to be on the lookout for, as well as give you information so that you can assess your own risk of ovarian cancer.

Ovarian cancer accounts for more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system, according to the American Cancer Society.

The risk of having ovarian cancer sometime in your lifetime is 1 in 78. That’s why if you have ovaries, you should be aware of the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer.

Early signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer may include:

  • abdominal bloating
  • changes in appetite
  • feeling full quickly
  • pelvic pain that doesn’t go away
  • urinary symptoms

These symptoms taken together have been referred to as the ovarian cancer symptom index.

When these symptoms occur more than 12 times per month over the span of less than 1 year, some organizations consider that to be a cancer warning sign.

Having these symptoms once or twice doesn’t indicate that you have ovarian cancer. It’s when there’s a regular pattern of two or more of these symptoms that it’s time to talk with your doctor.

While these symptoms may seem subtle or mild at first, symptoms that gradually get worse can be a sign of ovarian cancer.

Advanced signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer can include:

  • unexpected or unexplained weight loss
  • constipation
  • frequent urination
  • ascites (fluid buildup in your abdomen) with bloating

If you start experiencing some early symptoms of ovarian cancer and later have more-advanced symptoms, schedule an appointment with your doctor.

Some people have a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer than others. Risk factors of ovarian cancer include:

  • Age. Age is one of the primary risk factors. Younger people do get ovarian cancer, but it’s less common. Ovarian cancer diagnoses are most common between the ages of 60 and 64.
  • Chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation conditions of the reproductive system, such as endometriosis and pelvic inflammatory disease, may increase the risk.
  • HRT. Past use of hormonal replacement therapy (HRT) may increase the risk, but studies have been inconclusive.
  • Obesity. Obesity may be a risk factor because of the relationship between weight and sex hormones.
  • Family history. Having a family history of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, or other reproductive system cancers can increase the risk of ovarian cancer.
  • Nulliparity. Never giving birth (nulliparity) can increase the risk of ovarian cancer.

The earlier cancer is detected, the more treatment options are available. This is true for cancer in general, and especially ovarian cancer.

Ovarian cancer is one of the more difficult types of cancer to detect in its early stages because the symptoms can be subtle or vague. If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms above, it’s important to speak with a doctor, even if you’re not in a high-risk category.

It’s especially important to get checked by a doctor if you:

  • have a family history of reproductive cancer
  • are over the age of 60
  • have other ovarian cancer risk factors
  • are noticing symptoms

A doctor may use the following screening methods to detect ovarian cancer:

Routine physical

A regular health physical, including a pelvic exam, allows a doctor to check the size, shape, and consistency of your uterus and ovaries. Any swelling in those areas can be detected.

Your doctor may also ask you questions about your family and health history to assess your risk of ovarian cancer.

It’s recommended to see a gynecologist every year, regardless of your age.

Transvaginal ultrasound

A transvaginal ultrasound allows a doctor to examine your reproductive organs.

It’s a simple, in-office examination method. It uses high-frequency sound waves to create a live image of your uterus and ovaries. Masses or swelling that need to be removed or examined can be detected by an ultrasound.

CA-125 blood test

A blood test that looks for cancer antigen 125 (CA-125) can be an early way to detect ovarian cancer.

It’s a simple, noninvasive way to see whether the antigen found in ovarian cancer cells is at detectable levels in your blood.

A CA-125 blood test is generally better used in postmenopausal people. This is because many noncancerous conditions, like menstruation, pregnancy, or endometriosis, can increase CA-125 levels.

The early signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer can be subtle, making them hard to detect. They can also mimic a stomachache or some symptoms of perimenopause.

The problem isn’t that these symptoms appear out of nowhere, but that people don’t necessarily know what to look for or when to be concerned.

That’s why it’s important to know your risk and get an annual examination from a gynecologist. If you start having symptoms that you think could be ovarian cancer, don’t ignore them.

Keep a record of how often your symptoms occur, and speak with your doctor about any symptoms that are appearing to get worse over time.