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Ovarian Cancer & Persistent Bloating

Posted 8 years ago by Brendan

Why not to ignore persistent bloating

Abdominal bloating is indeed characteristic of overindulgence, indigestion, gastritis or common digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome. However, there may be a more sinister cause of bloating that warrants a visit to your doctor, particularly if you are a woman over fifty. This issue has been highlighted in the press recently, thanks to the UK organisation Target Ovarian Cancer, with the majority of the charity's awareness and fundraising activities occurring this March.

The ‘my jeans won’t fit' syndrome

For the majority of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer, increased abdominal size was the most noticeable, among the few early symptoms [1]. Mistaking this bloating as a simple stomach upset or weight gain is understandable considering many healthy women will experience varying degrees of these non-specific symptoms at some stage. Unfortunately, this limited awareness and failure to identify the symptoms of ovarian cancer often leads to delays in diagnosis, with many not seeking treatment until provoked by persistent pain [2].

According to the Target Ovarian Cancer Pathfinder Study, of the 6800 new cases in the UK each year, three quarters aren’t diagnosed until the disease has progressed to an advanced stage where complications and resistance to treatment are common. Ovarian cancer’s poor prognosis has remained relatively unchanged in recent years, unlike others such as breast or testicular, where public awareness of how important investigating suspicious lumps urgently has dramatically increased early detection and survival rates [3].

Research suggests the symptoms most indicative of ovarian cancer include [4]:

  • Persistent bloating
  • Persistent abdominal and/or pelvic pain
  • Increased abdominal size
  • Increased or difficult urination
  • Difficulty eating
  • Feeling full quickly
  • Changes in bowel habits

These symptoms are often subtle or non-existent early on, with many women dismissing these as normal bodily changes associated with childbearing, menopause, ageing or stress [5]. The key to differentiating these often vague and perhaps familiar occurrences from those that require urgent investigation, is frequency and persistence. Ovarian cancer symptoms occur on most days and don’t go away [3].

Abdominal bloating versus ovarian cancer

Generally speaking, any bloating, discomfort or gurgling associated with the digestive process will develop in response to ingesting food or drink (carbohydrates particularly). Often these symptoms get progressively worse, before subsiding once the substance that triggered the bloating has been digested. See What causes bloating for a more detailed explanation. If the bloating in question occurs infrequently, has a known trigger or is alleviated with gentle exercise, by belching or passing wind, following a bowel movement or after sleep, it might benefit from investigation, targeted dietary changes, natural remedies or supplementation, but this alone is unlikely to be cause for much concern. Some degree of menstrual bloating alongside pelvic or abdominal discomfort may also occur with menstruation, only to ease with time and rest. 

However, if you experience abdominal bloating, increased abdominal size or abdominal and/or pelvic pain that is new for you, does not go away or occurs on most days, talk to your doctor about investigating the cause, particularly if there is a history of ovarian or breast cancer in your close family. For tips on getting the most out of your doctor’s appointment if you suspect ovarian cancer click here.

Bloating is common and while the average GP will only see one case of ovarian cancer every five years [6], it is particularly tricky to identify because its primary symptoms; bloating and abdominal discomfort, are characteristic of many disorders and disease processes. So don’t think just because you’re a man or you’re bloating is sporadic, you can ignore it. Bloating is a sign that something isn't right and while irritable bowel syndrome, food intolerances or dysbiosis, are all favourable conditions when compared to ovarian cancer, early detection is still the key to optimising treatment outcomes. Once identified, the cause of bloating can be addressed and it’s always better to be safe than sorry. Particularly when ovarian cancer has a survival rate of more than 90% when caught early [4]

To get involved with Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, click here for information on planned awareness and fundraising events. For further information and support check out Ovacome: The ovarian cancer support network.

To understand more about bloating as a straightforward digestive complaint, read 'What is Bloating?


[1] Lockwood-Rayermann S., et al, 2009, “Women’s awareness of ovarian cancer risks and symptoms”, American Journal of Nursing, Sep 109(9):36-45.
[2] Goff B., et al, 2000, “Ovarian carcinoma diagnosis”, Cancer, Nov 15:89(10):2068-75.
[3] “Target ovarian cancer pathfinder study, 2009, viewed 10.03.2012.
[4] Clare R., 2005, “Symptoms associated with diagnosis of ovarian cancer: a systemic review”, BJOG: An international Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 12(7):857-65.
[5] Fitch M., et al, 2002, “Women’s experiences with ovarian cancer: reflections on being diagnosed”, Canadian Oncology Nursing Journal, 12(3):152-68.
[6] “Key messages for ovarian cancer for members of the public” 2008, viewed 10.03.2012. 

Tell us about it

If you or someone you know, has experience with ovarian cancer or persistent bloating, please share your thoughts. 

About Brendan O'Loughlin

Brendan is a integrative naturopath, nutritionist and yoga teacher. He has completed training in Naturopathy, Nutrition, Herbal Medicine, Yoga, Iridology and Live Blood Analysis.

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