Is it IBS or ovarian cancer?

Is it IBS or ovarian cancer?

I’ve put this blog post together because women need to understand that one of the symptoms of ovarian cancer is bloating. Bloating that’s related to ovarian cancer may cause visible swelling in the abdomen and your belly might feel full, puffy, or hard. The problem is that if you’ve been diagnosed with IBS, how do you know if your bloated belly is IBS-related or something more sinister? My advice is, don’t take any chances, go and see your GP and get a blood test for ovarian cancer. You should not assume that your bloated belly is IBS-related or gassy due to something you ate.

Ovarian cancer and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) share many symptoms, which is why the wrong diagnosis may be made. When ovarian tumours are diagnosed early, the odds of survival are good. Indeed, when the most common type of ovarian cancer is diagnosed before it has spread, five-year survival rates (a measure often considered indicative of a cure) are above 90 percent.

Unfortunately, not many ovarian cancers are discovered at an early stage. Signs and symptoms are somewhat vague and non-specific. Some of the signs, such as abdominal bloating, indigestion, nausea and changes in bowel movements overlap with (and are often confused with) the symptoms of IBS, a very common problem.

Symptoms of ovarian cancer vs IBS

If you compare the symptoms of IBS and ovarian cancer, you’ll see why ovarian cancer sometimes gets mistaken for IBS in the beginning stages.

The symptoms of ovarian cancer include:

  • Abdominal bloating
  • Indigestion
  • Nausea
  • Pressure in your pelvis and back
  • Decreased appetite or feeling full soon after eating
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Changes in bowel movements
  • Urgency or frequency of urination
  • Pain during sexual intercourse
  • Changes in periods (heavier bleeding or spotting)

Meanwhile, the symptoms of IBS include:

  • Abdominal pain (often accompanying bowel movements)
  • Changes in bowel movements
  • Bloating
  • Feeling of having incomplete bowel movements
  • Whitish mucous in your stool
Is it IBS or ovarian cancer?
Is it IBS or ovarian cancer?

IBS and ovarian cancer: why are the symptoms so similar?

The ovaries are attached to the uterus and dangle off the uterus, meaning they’re free-floating in the pelvis. The small bowel also free-floats in the abdominal pelvic cavity. As an ovarian mass grows, it can become attached to the intestines and affect how they function. Because of that, the initial symptom of ovarian cancer (one often ignored by women) is a vague sense of pressure or discomfort in the abdomen, along with crampiness.

Another defining symptom of ovarian cancer that the two disorders share is bloating. In the case of ovarian cancer, it occurs as a result of fluid collecting in the belly. In the case of IBS, bloating may be triggered by what people consume, such as fibre-rich foods, fried fatty foods, and carbonated drinks. Bloating can also be triggered by a lack of stomach acid, preventing food from being properly broken down and digested. This can create excess gases and bloating.

With the overlap in symptoms, it can be hard to tell what’s causing them. But one clue may be whether the symptoms come and go or get progressively worse.

IBS is a chronic problem, and its symptoms are intermittent. Cancer is a disease where symptoms continue to progress.

You must see your GP if:

  • Feeling bloated, particularly if more than 12 times a month
  • Other symptoms of ovarian cancer that will not go away – especially if you’re over 50 or have a family history of ovarian or breast cancer, as you may be at a higher risk

It is important to get these symptoms properly checked and investigated by your GP. Sometimes ovarian cancer can be falsely diagnosed as IBS due to the overlap on symptoms. Most of the time, it is nothing sinister. But it is always a good idea to get checked by your doctor if you are worried.

Testing for Ovarian Cancer

Testing for ovarian cancer

There is a simple blood test that can be performed to rule out ovarian cancer. This blood test looks for elevated levels of a substance known as CA125, which is produced by ovarian cancer cells. If this is detected, it could be a sign of ovarian cancer. However there are other conditions that may cause an elevated level, such as endometriosis, fibroids and pregnancy.

If the test does show high levels of CA125, then you will be referred for a scan to investigate the causes further.

It is important to know that sometimes your CA125 level can be normal in the very early stages of ovarian cancer. If you have had a normal blood test result but symptoms persist, then go back to the GP as you may need to be re-tested.

  • The most common tools used to begin to evaluate whether ovarian cancer is present are an ultrasound and a blood test, which tests for proteins associated with ovarian cancer.
  • If those tests are negative, your doctor will discuss the next steps, including whether you need to be evaluated for IBS.

To learn more about bloating and its causes, you can download our free Bloating Brochure here: