Ovarian Cancer: Subtle Symptoms that Most Women Mistake for IBS


Most young women suffer from IBS symptoms; bloating, upset stomach, and acid reflux. However, most of these ‘IBS symptoms’ that are easy to dismiss could be more severe: ovarian cancer.

According to a recent study conducted by the United Kingdom’s Target Ovarian Cancer, a non-profit organization, most women are likely to change their diet instead of visiting the doctor. Unfortunately, this could put those women at risk of overlooking subtle symptoms of ovarian cancer. Target Ovarian Cancer Chief Executive Annwen Jones says: 

“The symptoms of ovarian cancer are persistent bloating, always feeling full, tummy pain, and needing to wee [urinate] more. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms regularly and are not normal for you, you must see your GP [primary care doctor].

Sandra’s Story 

Take the case of Sandra (not her real name); she wasn’t too concerned when she first got IBS symptoms. Her doctor advised her to eliminate wheat, gluten, and dairy from her diet. She didn’t worry when the frequency and intensity of acid reflux, stomach cramps, and bloating increased. She visited the doctor several times and was given a capsule called Buscopan and was asked to de-stress her life. 

What she thought was a problem with her digestive system suddenly changed to a gynecological problem. One day she felt awful pain on her abdomen’s right hand, and soon her periods began lasting about a month. She still didn’t consider that there might be anything seriously wrong with her. Then, her stomach started to grow.

Revealed Ovarian Cancer

Her stomach got bigger and bigger until it was domed in shame. When he had ruled out pregnancy, she went back to the doctors who finally referred her for an ultrasound. When she got there, the nurse was so concerned about what she’d spotted that she told her to go straight to A&E. She had a cyst attached to her ovary that, it turned out, had grown to 15 centimeters by 10, and was filled with four liters of fluid. It weighed 9 pounds. The pain she had experienced earlier that day was caused by the cyst having twisted the ovary so much it killed it by squashing the organ inside her. 

When the doctors conducted the standard CA125 blood test to detect ovarian cancer, the results turned out normal. That’s common with women as the CA125 can sometimes give false results for many different reasons. While Sandra knew she had a tumor and the doctors operated to remove it, cancer was the last thing on her mind, until the doctors did a biopsy that revealed ovarian cancer. 

Persistent Bloating

Sandra’s experience is replicated in many women’s lives, albeit in varying degrees and circumstances. The Jones’ organization recently conducted online research for more than 1140 women in the United Kingdom using the YouGov market research platform. 

According to the study, only 34% of the respondents said they would consult a doctor if they felt bloated regularly. Comparatively, 50% said they would change their diet and eliminate dairy and gluten or add probiotic yogurt. 43% would turn to Google to check their symptoms, 23% would self-medicate with over-the-counter medication whole 22% said they would exercise. In an earlier survey, the Jones Organization found that only 20% of women in the UK linked persistent bloating with signs of ovarian cancer. Jones stated:     

“Early diagnosis of ovarian cancer makes the disease easier to treat, so Target Ovarian Cancer is telling everyone to learn the symptoms. It’s unlikely that your symptoms are caused by a serious problem […], but getting checked out by your GP is important and will put your mind at rest.”

The Silent Killer 

Ovarian cancer isn’t easy to detect early, with only 20% of the cases being diagnosed soon enough for the treatment to be most effective. Most cases are discovered later when cancer has spread to other body organs. After a diagnosis of ovarian cancer, the chances of a patient surviving for five years is 46%. Compare this to 69% for bowel cancer and 91% for breast cancer. According to Dr. Carmel Cohen, a professor emeritus of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive science at The Mount Sinai Hospital: 

“Historically, ovarian cancer was thought to be the ‘silent killer’ because it developed without announcement, and before you know it, the patient had late-stage cancer.”

For a long time, many doctors believed that ovarian cancer produced no early symptoms. However, in the late 1990s, things changed, and research started showing there were early warning signs that one could easily miss. While those early warning signs didn’t always appear, when they did, they almost always included bloating, abdominal pain, feeling full quickly, and urinary tract symptoms. Other subtle signs include fatigue, nausea, constipation, menstrual changes, and pain during sex, and back pain.

Easy to Misdiagnose 

At least 22,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and over 14,000 of them will die. The sad thing is that most aren’t aware of the disease’s symptoms and dangers, and many will realize they have a problem when it’s too late. There is also total ignorance about ovarian cancer and its impact on the body. The symptoms of ovarian cancer are almost always associated with less common ailments such as indigestion. Many patients won’t take it seriously, while doctors may not easily suspect ovarian cancer either. 

By the time most women realize the severity of the problem, cancer has often spread to other organs and progressed to a stage that’s harder to treat. Dr. Ronny Drapkin, director of the Penn Ovarian Cancer Research Center and member of the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund Alliance’s scientific advisory committee, explains”

“Often, people would suggest maybe change your diet, maybe eat more roughage, and maybe take some [antacids] if you’re having more reflux or bloating, and things like that. It’s not until those symptoms continue to persist after you’ve done all the commonsensical things that perhaps you’ll end up with an ultrasound or imaging that will reveal that there’s a mass in your pelvis that’s rather large.”

Commonly Missed Signs of Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer begins in the ovaries, and if not caught quickly, it will spread rapidly to the rest of the reproductive system. Nonetheless, there are symptoms of ovarian cancer that you can easily overlook or attribute to less serious health challenges. This means they are easily missed by patients and doctors alike. These include the following: 

       I.            Swollen or Bloated Abdomen

Swelling in the abdomen happens when a fluid called ascites get strapped in the abdominal cavity. The symptom occurs later in the disease but can easily be blamed on other conditions. Always keep track of your health and compare this symptom with other signs.

    II.            Chronic Pain in the Abdomen or Pelvis

Persistent pain in the abdomen or pelvis region could indicate that something is wrong. Take any pain that persists seriously ad it could be a sign of ovarian cysts or ovarian cancer. 

 III.            Difficulty Eating or Feeling Full

Women with ovarian cancer tend to feel full quickly and fail to eat as much as they usually do. The reason may be that cancer has disrupted the hormones that control metabolism. 

  IV.            Urinary Problems

Ovarian cancer can cause increased urination as the fluid buildup mentioned above pushes the bladder. If you start visiting the restroom too often, don’t merely attribute the problem to bladder problems.  

     V.            Change in Bowel Movements

Treat all significant changes in bowel movements that include constipation or diarrhea with suspicion. This may be caused by cancer spreading to the colon or the fluid buildup affecting the area.  

  VI.            Spotting Between Periods

There are several health issues that spotting can be linked to, and ovarian cancer is only one of them. Discuss any abnormal bleeding with your health care professional. Thankfully, there are telehealth Apps like Solve. Care’s GTHE that can enable you to talk to your clinician from the comfort of your home or office using telehealth.  


One or two of these symptoms listed here may be attributed to other less serious health problems; this is why ovarian cancer can go for months without being noticed. You can improve your early diagnosis and treatment chances by visiting your doctor the moment you discover abnormal symptoms lasting more than a few weeks. If you suspect your symptoms result from ovarian cancer, discuss with your doctor during an in-person visit or via telehealth the need for a pelvic exam, ultrasound, or other cancer tests. Drapkin says:

“What I tell people all the time is that each woman has to listen to her body carefully. If those things aren’t common for you or they persist for longer than they might normally, that’s when you need to start advocating for medical attention. And that’s the important part […] that every woman knows her body better than everyone else.”