Ovarian cancer symptoms: how signs differ to cervical cancer, how to get a test - and is it hereditary?

The ovaries are a pair of small organs located low in the stomach that are connected to the womb and store a woman's supply of eggs

Ovarian cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in women, but diagnosis of the disease can be difficult due to symptoms being similar to those of other common conditions.

A new UK study - which looked at screening the population regularly for ovarian cancer in order to spot the disease early - has now found that this did not reduce deaths from the condition.

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Experts have said that as a result they cannot recommend regular ovarian cancer screening for the general population, but did say that those experiencing symptoms should consult their doctor so they can get early access to treatment if it is needed.

Ovarian cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in women, but diagnosis of the disease can be difficult due to symptoms being similar to those of other common conditions (Photo: Shutterstock)

But what are the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer?

Here’s what you need to know.

What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?

The ovaries are a pair of small organs located low in the stomach that are connected to the womb and store a woman's supply of eggs, explains the NHS.

Common symptoms of ovarian cancer include:

- feeling constantly bloated

- a swollen tummy

- discomfort in your tummy or pelvic area

- feeling full quickly when eating

- needing to pee more often than usual

The NHS says: “The symptoms are not always easy to recognise because they're similar to those of some more common conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).”

Ovarian cancer mainly affects women who have been through the menopause, but it can sometimes affect younger women.

However, ovarian cancer differs from cervical cancer, which develops in a woman's cervix and mainly affects sexually active women aged between 30 and 45.

Cancer of the cervix often has no symptoms in its early stages, but if you do have symptoms, the most common is abnormal vaginal bleeding, which can occur during or after sex, in between periods, or new bleeding after you have been through the menopause.

Although abnormal bleeding does not mean you have cervical cancer, you should see a GP as soon as possible to get it checked out.

What are the causes of ovarian cancer and is it hereditary?

Although the exact cause of ovarian cancer is unknown, some things may increase a woman's risk of getting it, such as:

- being over the age of 50

- a family history of ovarian or breast cancer

- hormone replacement therapy (HRT) – although any increase in cancer risk is likely to be very small

- endometriosis

- being overweight

- smoking

- lack of exercise

- exposure to asbestos

What is an ovarian cyst?

An ovarian cyst is a fluid-filled sac that develops on an ovary, but they're very common and do not usually cause any symptoms.

Most ovarian cysts occur naturally and go away in a few months without needing any treatment.

When should I see a GP if I have symptoms of ovarian cancer?

The NHS advices seeing a GP if:

- you have been feeling bloated, particularly more than 12 times a month

- you have other symptoms of ovarian cancer that will not go away

- you have a family history of ovarian cancer and are worried you may be at a higher risk of getting it

“If you have already seen a GP and your symptoms continue or get worse, go back to them and explain this,” adds the NHS.

If you have a family history of ovarian cancer, a GP may refer you to a genetics specialist to discuss the option of genetic testing to check your ovarian cancer risk.

If the GP thinks your symptoms could be due to ovarian cancer, they'll recommend having a blood test to check for a substance called CA125, which is produced by some ovarian cancer cells and a high level of CA125 in your blood could be a sign of ovarian cancer.

However, a raised CA125 level does not mean you definitely have cancer, as it can also be caused by other conditions such as endometriosis, fibroids and even pregnancy.

If the test shows a high level of CA125, you'll be referred for a scan to check for possible causes.

What is the treatment for ovarian cancer?

The treatment for ovarian cancer depends on different factors, such as how far the cancer has spread and your general health.

The main treatments are:

- surgery to remove as much of the cancer as possible. This will often involve removing both ovaries, the womb and the fallopian tubes

- chemotherapy – this is usually used after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells, but is occasionally used before surgery to shrink the cancer.