Symptoms and diagnosis of ovarian cancer

Symptoms

Most women will not notice any symptoms as it can take a long time for symptoms to occur. When symptoms do appear, they can be mild, vague or do not go away (persistent). They can include:

  • Bloated feeling
  • Persistent swollen abdomen
  • Pain or dragging sensation in your lower abdomen or side
  • Vague indigestion or nausea
  • Poor appetite and feeling full quickly
  • Changes in your bowel or bladder habits; for example, constipation or needing to pass water urgently
  • Abnormal vaginal discharge or bleeding (rare)

Even though these symptoms can be caused by complaints other than cancer, do have them checked by your doctor.

Screening

Testing for ovarian cancer when you have no symptoms is called screening. There is no national ovarian screening programme in Ireland at present. Talk to your GP if you feel you or your family are at risk. Cervical screening tests (smear tests) will not pick up signs of ovarian cancer.

Diagnosis

Visit your family doctor (GP) if you are worried about any symptoms. Your GP will examine you first. He or she will do an internal exam by placing a gloved finger into your vagina to feel for any lumps or swelling. If your doctor has concerns about you, he or she will refer you to a hospital. There, you will see a specialist who may arrange more tests, such as the following:

  • Ultrasound of abdomen
  • Transvaginal ultrasound
  • Laparoscopy
  • Special blood test

Ultrasound of abdomen: An ultrasound uses sound waves to build up a picture of the tissues inside your body. A gel is spread over the area to be scanned first. A probe that makes sound waves is then used to take the scan. The sound waves are converted into a picture by a computer and can show up any abnormal tissues.

Transvaginal ultrasound: This is a special type of ultrasound. A small metal device called a probe is put into your vagina first. It looks like a microphone and is covered with a gel. By doing the test in this way, clear pictures of your womb and ovaries can be seen. This test is not painful but may be a little uncomfortable.

Laparoscopy: This is a small operation done in theatre under general anaesthetic. Your doctor will make a small cut in your lower abdomen near your belly button. He or she will then put a thin mini-telescope called a laparoscope into the wound. By looking through the laparoscope, your doctor can see your ovaries and take a small sample of tissue (biopsy) to be examined.

Special blood test: A blood test called CA125 is usually done. CA125 is a chemical found in blood that is sometimes released from ovarian cancer cells. It is known as a tumour marker for ovarian cancer. Not all women with ovarian cancer will have a raised CA125.

Special tests

These may include:

  • CT scan
  • PET scan
  • MRI scan

These scans can help to stage the cancer. This means finding out the size of the cancer and if it has spread anywhere else. This can help your doctor to decide on the right treatment for you.

Learn more about the above tests

Call our National Cancer Helpline

Freephone 1800 200 700 to talk to a specialist cancer nurse
It's open Monday-Thursday from 9am to 7pm and Friday from 9am to 5pm