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Conditions That Look Like Ovarian Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on May 05, 2021

Doctors sometimes think of ovarian cancer as a silent disease. It’s true that it usually doesn't have clear symptoms until it’s already at an advanced stage. But ovarian cancer actually does have symptoms. They include:

  • Bloating
  • Pelvic or belly pain
  • Loss of appetite or feeling full
  • Peeing often or feeling like you need to

The problem is that lots of other less serious conditions have these symptoms, too. To catch ovarian cancer sooner, it may help to know some other conditions that might look like it and when to see a doctor.

Ovarian Cancer vs. Ovarian Cysts

Ovarian cysts are fluid-filled sacs or pockets of normal tissue, while ovarian cancers are solid masses of cancer cells. Ovarian cysts may have symptoms and can come and go with your menstrual cycle. Sometimes, cysts can cause symptoms similar to those of ovarian cancer, including:

  • Belly pain that can be sharp
  • Bloating
  • Pain during sex
  • Menstrual changes
  • Peeing often

If you’re having these symptoms, a doctor can use ultrasound to look and see if it’s a cyst or a tumor. If it's a cyst, they’ll likely keep an eye on it to make sure it goes away.

Ovarian Cancer vs. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

You might think ovarian cancer and IBS would look different, but both can cause symptoms including:

If these symptoms are new for you and last for a few weeks, see a doctor. Unlike symptoms of ovarian cancer, symptoms of IBS may be triggered by food or stress.

Ovarian Cancer vs. Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS)

Some of the symptoms of ovarian cancer and PMS overlap. Both can cause:

  • Fatigue
  • Bloating
  • Constipation or diarrhea

But PMS often has other changes, including:

While everyone is different, PMS tends to happen in a predictable way. Unlike ovarian cancer, it should come and go with your menstrual cycle.

Ovarian Cancer vs. Endometriosis

Endometriosis happens when extra tissue similar to the lining of your uterus grows outside of it. It can cause symptoms similar to those of ovarian cancer and other conditions that look like ovarian cancer, including:

  • Pelvic or belly pain
  • Pain during sex
  • Pain when going to the bathroom
  • Fatigue
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Bloating

The symptoms of endometriosis usually get worse during your menstrual period. They may also come with heavy periods and infertility. A doctor can do a pelvic exam, ultrasound, and other tests if they think you might have this. People with endometriosis do have more risk for ovarian cancer, but most women with endometriosis don't get ovarian cancer.

Ovarian Cancer vs. Uterine Fibroids

Uterine fibroids are growths in the uterus that aren’t cancer. They can feel something like ovarian cancer, with signs and symptoms including:

But uterine fibroids often come with other symptoms, including:

  • Heavy menstrual periods
  • Long menstrual periods
  • Back or leg pain

Ovarian Cancer vs. Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)

Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) is caused by an infection. Some symptoms overlap with those of ovarian cancer, including:

  • Belly pain
  • Pain during sex
  • Difficult or painful peeing

But PID often includes other symptoms, such as:

PID is more likely if you've had unprotected sex with multiple partners or have a history of sexually transmitted infections.

Ovarian Cancer vs. Menstrual Cramps

Both ovarian cancer and menstrual cramps can cause belly pain. The pain of menstrual cramps may be:

  • Throbbing
  • Dull or continuous
  • Radiating into your lower back or legs

If your pain is related to menstrual cramps, it should start before your period and last a few days before going away. Sometimes, menstrual cramps are related to other conditions that also can look like ovarian cancer, including:

Ovarian Cancer vs. Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)

Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are common in women. You may have a UTI if you notice:

  • Pelvic pain
  • An urge to pee often
  • Burning when you pee
  • Peeing small amounts
  • Changes in the way your pee looks or smells

Many of these symptoms can also be a sign of ovarian cancer, although a UTI is more likely. Your doctor can test your urine to see if what you have is a UTI. They usually go away with antibiotics.

Ovarian Cancer vs. Ectopic Pregnancy

An ectopic pregnancy happens when a fertilized egg implants outside the uterus, usually in a fallopian tube. While ovarian cancer symptoms are often subtle, ectopic pregnancies can cause:

A pregnancy test can help to rule out an ectopic pregnancy. But this condition is an emergency and can be life-threatening. If you think you are pregnant and have symptoms of an ectopic pregnancy, see a doctor right away.

Ovarian Cancer vs. Appendicitis

Appendicitis is inflammation of the appendix often caused by an infection. It’s more common in younger people, ages 10 to 30, while ovarian cancer usually happens later in life. Ovarian cancer and appendicitis can both cause belly pain. But the pain of appendicitis is typically:

  • Sudden and severe, beginning on the right side or around the bellybutton and shifting right
  • Worsening over time
  • Worsening with coughing, walking, or sudden movements

Appendicitis also can cause:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Bloating
  • Gas

Appendicitis can cause serious complications, including a life-threatening rupture. If you think you may have appendicitis, see a doctor right away.

Ovarian Cancer vs. Other Cancers

Ovarian cancer can have symptoms similar to those of other cancers in the abdomen. For example, colon cancer symptoms can include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Belly pain

Another example is peritoneal cancer. This cancer spreads from another organ to the lining of the abdomen. Symptoms may be similar to those of ovarian cancer, including:

  • Bloating or swelling
  • Belly pain
  • Peeing often
  • Feeling full

When to See a Doctor

If you’re having symptoms that might be ovarian cancer and they’re unexplained, new for you, and don't go away in a relatively short period of time, call your doctor. You should take notice also if the symptoms don't respond to over-the-counter medicines or home remedies.

There is no easy way to screen for ovarian cancer, but a doctor can help you rule out other possibilities and get to the bottom of your symptoms. Let your doctor know if you may be at higher risk of ovarian cancer due to your family history or an inherited cancer syndrome. It's important to catch ovarian cancer early, when it’s easier to treat.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

American Cancer Society: "Signs and Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer,” “Ovarian Cancer Risk Factors."

Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance: “Science Made Simple: Ovarian Cysts and Ovarian Cancer.”

GI Society, Canadian Society of Intestinal Research: “Could Your Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Really be Ovarian Cancer?”

Mayo Clinic: “Irritable bowel syndrome," "Premenstrual syndrome,” “Endometriosis," “Uterine Fibroids,” "Pelvic Inflammatory Disease," "Menstrual Cramps," "Urinary Tract Infections," “Ectopic Pregnancy," “Appendicitis,” "Colon Cancer."

Cedars-Sinai: “Peritoneal Cancer."

Rush University Medical Center: “5 Early Signs of Ovarian Cancer.”

CDC: "Ovarian Cancer: What Should I Know about Screening?"

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