What Are the Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on March 31, 2024
5 min read

In its early stages, ovarian cancer may not cause symptoms you would notice. Early signs of ovarian cancer may feel like common ailments including constipation, heartburn, or fatigue. Even as the disease advances, the signs can be unclear.

For many years, ovarian cancer was known as a "silent" disease. But if you know the symptoms of ovarian cancer, you and your doctor will have a better chance of finding it early.

There are four main symptoms of ovarian cancer. You might have them even in the early stages of the disease. They are:

  • Bloating
  • Pain in your pelvis or belly
  • Trouble eating or quickly feeling that you’re full
  • Always feeling like you need to pee (urgency) or feeling like you need to pee often (frequency)

Many things other than ovarian cancer can cause these symptoms. Think about whether they’re unusual for you and whether they’re happening more often or seem to be getting worse.

Other symptoms that could mean you have ovarian cancer include:

  • Getting tired easily and being tired a lot (fatigue)
  • Pain during sex
  • Back pain
  • Upset stomach or heartburn
  • Constipation
  • Swelling in your belly
  • Unexplained weight changes -- losing weight without trying or bloating that seems like weight gain
  • Unusual vaginal discharge or bleeding, especially after menopause

Keep in mind that even though these things can be signs of ovarian cancer, it’s more likely that something else is causing them.

There is an American system and an international system for staging ovarian cancer. They look at the following information to stage your cancer:

  • The size of your tumor and whether it has spread outside your ovary or fallopian tube to other organs in your pelvis
  • Whether the cancer has spread to lymph nodes inside your pelvis including the para-aortic lymph nodes, which are near your aorta (the artery that leads from your heart)
  • Whether the cancer has spread to distant areas and organs (metastasized)

In the American system, doctors use a designation called TNM (tumor, lymph nodes, metastasis) and numbers or letters after each of these abbreviations to describe the extent of your cancer. The higher the number, the more advanced your cancer is.

Staging cancers helps doctors know what types of treatment to use and how successful your treatment is likely to be. It's also a type of shorthand among doctors as they exchange information about your care.

Ovarian cancer symptoms by stage:

Stage I. In this stage, the cancer is contained within one or both ovaries. Surgeons may find cancer cells on the outside of one or both ovaries or in abdominal cavity fluid.

Stage II. Here, the cancer has spread beyond one or both ovaries to nearby abdominal tissues and organs such as the uterus and fallopian tubes and may also be found in abdominal cavity fluid.

Stage III. Cancer is found in the lymph nodes and the lining of the abdomen.

Late stage. The cancer has spread beyond the pelvic area, most commonly to the fluid surrounding the lungs, as well as to bones, liver, spleen, intestine, and lymph nodes outside the abdomen.

Because the signs of ovarian cancer are common and somewhat vague, it’s hard to know when to call the doctor. Get checked out if your symptoms:

  • Are new to you
  • Happen more than 12 times in a month
  • Don’t go away with changes such as exercise, diet, laxatives, or more rest

Tell your doctor if ovarian cancer or breast cancer runs in your family.

Symptoms that last more than a couple of weeks are key to spotting ovarian cancer. Only about 15% of ovarian cancer is diagnosed in the early stages. Many women don’t notice problems until a tumor is more advanced.

Several conditions can cause a mass or swelling in your pelvic area. They may be malignant (cancerous) or benign (noncancerous). You might not know that you have one until your doctor spots it during a routine checkup.

An ovarian cyst is one of the most common causes of pelvic masses. Others include fibroids and endometriosis.

A pelvic mass can cause symptoms similar to those of ovarian cancer, such as:

  • Pelvic pain
  • Swelling or a bloated feeling in your belly
  • Needing to pee often
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Aching in your lower back and thighs
  • Trouble emptying your bladder or bowels
  • Pain during sex
  • Weight gain with no clear cause
  • Unusual vaginal bleeding
  • Breast tenderness

Ovarian cancer often begins with vague symptoms, such as constipation, indigestion, and fatigue. However, tell your doctor about any recent, prolonged, or worsening symptoms such as bloating, abdominal pain, feeling full quickly when eating, and frequent or urgent urination. These can be vital and early warning signs of ovarian cancer. Staging is an important tool that establishes whether your cancer is confined to your ovaries or has spread beyond them and determines the course of treatment.

What is the survival rate for ovarian cancer?

Survival rates tell you how long people diagnosed with a similar stage and type of cancer live after diagnosis. The standard is usually 5 years. These estimates give you a good idea of how well treatment worked for people in your circumstances. Survival rates also depend on the type of ovarian cancer you have.

The 5-year survival rate is 93% for cancer that hasn't spread outside the ovaries. It is 75% for cancer that's spread outside the ovaries but not outside the pelvis. For advanced ovarian cancer, the 5-year survival rate is about 31%.

What are the most common treatments for ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer is typically treated with surgery and chemotherapy. Sometimes, targeted therapies based on genetic testing are used to slow cancer cells' growth or spread. You may want to get a second opinion about possible therapies to treat your cancer.

How treatable is ovarian cancer?

The usual course of therapy for patients with ovarian cancer is surgery followed by chemotherapy. This treatment leads to no visible evidence of disease on scans or blood tests in about 80% of patients. Some patients may be candidates for a type of maintenance drug called PARP inhibitors, which work to slow the disease progression or prevent relapse. There are also FDA-approved immunotherapy options that use your immune system to kill cancer cells.