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Abdominal Bloating as a Symptom of Ovarian Cancer

written by: Dr. Kristie Leong • edited by: Diana Cooper • updated: 1/7/2011

Is abdominal bloating a symptom of ovarian cancer? Find out more about the association between abdominal bloating and ovarian cancer - and why this is a symptom all women should take seriously.

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    Abdominal bloating is a frequent symptom with a variety of causes. Some people, particularly women, experience this problem due to hormonal changes, and it’s not uncommon for some people to have temporary bloating after eating a large meal. But, abdominal bloating can have more serious causes in women, including ovarian cancer. What is the association between abdominal bloating and ovarian cancer?

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    Ovarian Cancer and Abdominal Bloating

    Ovarian cancer has a poor prognosis, primarily because it’s often not diagnosed until the tumor is advanced. This is because the symptoms of ovarian cancer are often missed early on. Experts once believed that ovarian cancer was a silent disease that gave few clues as to its presence. This is now known not to be the case. Ovarian cancer may give subtle signs and symptoms early in the course of the disease.

    According to an article published on Medscape.com, there are seven signs that should raise the suspicion of ovarian cancer, and these signs may appear early. Abdominal bloating and abdominal distension are two of these signs and symptoms – along with frequent urination, abdominal discomfort, loss of appetite, vaginal bleeding that’s unrelated to menstruation and bleeding from the rectum. These signs and symptoms are important since ovarian cancer diagnosed at an early state has a survival rate of up to seventy percent.

    Abdominal bloating and ovarian cancer can certainly co-exist, but why does ovarian cancer cause bloating? The ovaries are normally the size of a walnut or smaller, but as cancer of the ovary progresses, the ovary enlarges and fluid accumulates in the pelvic cavity - leading to abdominal bloating. This can cause pain or abdominal discomfort, but not always. This fluid accumulation can also put pressure on the bowels and bladder causing increased urination or changes in bowel habits, usually constipation.

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    Abdominal Bloating Has Other Causes Too

    There are many causes of abdominal bloating including problems with the liver and the digestive tract, so having this symptom doesn’t necessarily mean a woman has ovarian cancer. On the other hand, new, unexplained abdominal bloating or abdominal distension always requires a workup to rule out ovarian cancer if there’s no other known cause. This includes a physical exam and gynecological exam. Most doctors will also draw a blood test called a CA-125 blood test that’s relatively non-specific, but may be elevated in ovarian cancer. Based on the results, a doctor may also recommend a trans-vaginal ultrasound to look for cancer.

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    The Bottom Line

    Abdominal bloating is a sign of ovarian cancer that’s often overlooked, but one that isn’t specific for the disease. Bloating can have many causes. On the other hand, abdominal bloating and distension should always be taken seriously and evaluated by a doctor. Staying attuned to bodily changes and being aware of symptoms like this is the key to diagnosing ovarian cancer early.

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    References

    Medscape.com. “Seven Clues to Ovarian Cancer"

    Merck Manual. Eighteenth edition. 2006.