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Nine ovarian cancer warning signs you probably didn't know

Knowing the signs and symptoms might just save your life.

A mum and daughter hug and laugh together
A mum and daughter hug and laugh together

February is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month and across Australia, we're encouraging everyone to use it as a reminder to learn the signs and symptoms in a bid to minimise the impact of the disease.

Ovarian cancer isn't a silent disease and many women who've been diagnosed report a number of symptoms prior to their diagnosis. “The symptoms discussed in this article are benign most of the time,” says Dr Hamish Black, “however ovarian cancer is severely underdiagnosed so it’s important to be aware and educated about some of the symptoms so you can seek medical help if you experience them.”

Here are nine ovarian cancer warning signs from Ovarian Cancer Australia that you need to be aware of.

1. Bloating

If you've noticed that your favourite jeans have gotten a little tight around the waist, but you know that you haven't put weight on anywhere else, it could be a sign of bloating (fluid retention) around the ovaries. Obviously many women experience bloating during their menstrual cycle, or from certain foods, but when this targeted bloating sticks around persistently you should investigate further.

2. Abdominal pain

Cramping or sharp pain from the abdominal or pelvic region can be a sign of ovarian cancer. Again, this could be caused by a multitude of factors including your menstrual cycle, illness and even stress, but it’s always worth visiting your GP, who may recommend an ultrasound to be safe rather than sorry.

3. Spotting

While not uncommon, spotting or bleeding in between your periods can be a warning sign of ovarian cancer. It can also be a sign of pregnancy, a result of hormonal changes, endometriosis and caused by a multitude of other factors so consult your doctor as soon as possible. 
Also be aware of unusual vaginal bleeding such as after menopause of after sex.  

Depending on your symptoms, your GP may swab your vagina to test for infections, take a cervical screening test, ask you to have a blood test or go for an ultrasound.

4. Loss of appetite

Like all the symptoms mentioned so far, loss of appetite can be caused by a range of different reasons, so it's always best to discuss with your GP. However in this context if you experience a general feeling of getting 'full' quickly or being unable to finish small meals that you’d normally be able to eat, note down when this started so you can discuss with your doctor. Your doctor will likely ask if this symptom is associated with other symptoms like weight loss or abdominal pain.

5. Increased urge to urinate

Another sign of ovarian cancer is the urge to urinate often and urgently, so if you find yourself rushing to the loo regularly, it might be a good idea to take note and get it checked out. Some people may also experience a feeling like they need to urinate, but upon sitting down on the toilet the feeling disappears.

6. Change in bowel habits

Cancer Australia reports that changes in bowel habits, such as constipation or diarrhoea  could be a sign of ovarian cancer, along with bloating and abdominal pain. Like all the symptoms we’ve discussed so far, it’s important to know your body and understand if these changes are unusual.

7. Unexplained change in weight

An unexplained change in weight, whether it be weight loss or weight gain can also be a symptom of ovarian cancer. Like Dr Hamish mentioned at the start of this article, this symptom may be benign however it’s important to see your doctor as it could be a sign of something more serious.

8. Back pain

Tumours from the cancer can grow outside of the ovaries, which can cause back pain. Some patients report intermittent unexplained back pain as a symptom,, opens in a new tab so if you’re finding that you are experiencing random bouts of back pain see your doctor.

9. Pain during sex

If you're suddenly starting to feel pain when you have intercourse, it can be a sign of ovarian cancer. This is due to the possibility of a tumour pushing into your vagina and being aggravated by sexual penetration.

If you've got concerns about any of these symptoms, or you've started experiencing them a number of times over a four-week period, make sure you book in for a visit with your GP.

nib Members can access telehealth consultations, opens in a new tab through the nib App, opens in a new tab. Our partner, opens in a new tab can also provide online medical certificates if you need to rest at home. 

At nib, we offer a number of hospital covers that include diagnostic gynaecological procedures and, if required, cancer surgery and in-hospital treatment. Login to your Member Account, opens in a new tab to check what you’re covered for or call 13 16 42. Be aware that waiting periods may apply if you choose to change or upgrade your cover.

The information contained in this article is provided as general information only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnoses or treatment. For personalised medical advice, always see your qualified health professional. 

 Fact checked by Dr Hamish Black January 2024 

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