The signs of ovarian cancer are often related to other less serious conditions. But if you notice any symptoms that happen most days, last for three weeks or more, start suddenly and are quite severe you should see a doctor as soon as possible – especially if you’re over 50 or have a family history of ovarian or breast cancer.
At the moment, there aren’t any reliable screening tests to pick up the early stages of ovarian cancer. Researchers are currently trying to identify effective screening methods, including blood tests and ultrasounds.
Symptoms of early ovarian cancer
Often women in the early stages of ovarian cancer won’t notice any symptoms at all. And because the signs are so vague, it can be hard to identify. Symptoms can include pain in your lower tummy (abdomen) or side, or you might feel bloated and full.
Symptoms of ovarian cancer growing outside the ovary
If the cancer’s started growing outside your ovary, you might notice other symptoms. These are caused as the tumour grows in your pelvis:
- irregular periods
- vaginal bleeding after menopause
- back pain
- needing to pee more often
- pain during sex
- swollen abdomen
- loss of appetite.
Symptoms of ovarian cancer that’s spread
If the cancer’s spread to another organ, as well as the symptoms already listed, you might feel:
- short of breath.
Getting symptoms checked
If you notice any of these symptoms, you should see your doctor. Your doctor might examine you to see if your womb and ovaries feel normal. They’ll ask you to lie on your back with your knees up so they can fall gently apart. Then your doctor will feel for things like lumps or swellings by putting two fingers into your vagina and pressing your tummy with their other hand.
They may also want to look at your cervix – the muscle at the opening of your womb – to see if it looks normal. They’ll use something called a speculum to carefully open your vagina. It shouldn’t be uncomfortable, but let them know if you feel any pain.
Your doctor might refer you to gynaecologist for further tests.
Ovarian cancer tests at BMI Healthcare
At BMI Healthcare, we offer specialised ovarian cancer tests at our clinics across the country. If you choose to have your ovarian cancer tests at a BMI Healthcare Women’s Health clinic, you’ll be seen by one of our expert consultant gynaecologists. These are doctors who specialise in the female reproductive system.Because our specialists are highly experienced, you’ll get expert advice and excellent care, with your test results usually delivered within 48 hours.
Some ovarian cancers produce a protein called CA125, which is carried in the blood. Around nine out of ten women with ovarian cancer have raised CA125 levels. Your consultant gynaecologist might ask you to have a blood test to see if your levels are normal. If your test shows high levels, you’ll need to have further tests to help identify the problem.
Ultrasound scans build up a picture of the inside of your body by using sound waves. Your scan will help to check whether:
- your ovaries are the right size
- the texture of your ovaries is normal
- there are any cysts in your ovaries.
If your scan shows any cysts that look suspicious, you may need surgery to remove them. They’ll then be sent to a laboratory and looked at under a microscope for cancer cells.
CT scans give detailed images of your ovaries and the surrounding areas by taking X-rays at different angles.
Risk of malignancy index (RMI)
This index combines your blood test and ultrasound results, and looks at whether or not you’re past the menopause. This gives a final score. If your score’s high, you’ll need to have further tests.
If you’re diagnosed with ovarian cancer, you’ll probably need more tests. These show how much the cancer’s grown and if it’s spread.
- A chest X-ray sees if the cancer’s spread to your lungs or caused fluid build up
- A CT scan or MRI scan sees if there are signs of cancer elsewhere in your body
- Laparoscopy uses a small camera to look at your ovaries and the surrounding area without needing an operation
- Biopsy takes a sample of tissue from your ovaries or abdomen. The samples will be checked for cancer cells in a lab
- Removing abdominal fluid is sometimes necessary if you have a build up of fluid in your tummy. Your consultant gynaecologist will check some of the fluid for cancer cells.
The stages and grades of ovarian cancer
Once you’ve been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, your specialist will give you a stage and grade. The stage tells you the size of the cancer and how far it’s spread. The grade describes what the cells look like.
- Stage 1: The cancer only affects the ovaries
- Stage 2: The cancer has spread to the pelvis or womb
- Stage 3: The cancer has spread to the lining of your tummy, your bowel and the lymph nodes in your pelvis
- Stage 4: The cancer has spread to other parts of your body, like your lungs.
For more detailed explanations of each of the stages, please read Cancer Research’s stages of ovarian cancer guide.
- Low grade: The abnormal cells are growing slowly
- Moderate grade: The cells look more abnormal than at low grade
- High grade: The cells look very abnormal and are fast-growing.