Ovarian Cancer Symptoms: GI Issues

Symptoms of ovarian cancer tend to be general and not specific to the condition. This may explain why the disease is not usually caught in its early stages.

Many of the potential symptoms of ovarian cancer may be caused by other conditions. However, symptoms that are constant and do not go away on their own in a short period of time should be discussed with your doctor.

Many people have gastrointestinal (GI) issues and do not think much of them at first. While GI symptoms like constipation and a tendency to feel full may not be a red flag, they can be possible symptoms of ovarian cancer.1

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GI symptoms tend to be continuous and do not go away on their own. It is important to be aware of your body and its signs and symptoms. If you are experiencing GI symptoms, talk with your doctor sooner rather than later. This will help you and your doctor find the underlying causes of your symptoms.

What are GI issues?

When people talk about GI issues, this can mean a number of things like constipation, symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and more. With ovarian cancer, especially advanced ovarian cancer, symptoms may include:1

  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • General upset stomach
  • Feeling full after eating very little

What can cause GI issues?

A variety of factors can cause GI issues, including:1,2

  • A diet low in fiber
  • A sedentary lifestyle
  • Eating large amounts of dairy
  • Resisting the urge to have a bowel movement
  • Stress
  • Overuse of laxatives (this can weaken the bowel muscles over time)
  • Pregnancy
  • Certain drugs like antidepressants or antacids

Other conditions that can cause GI issues include irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or diverticular disease.1,2

What causes GI issues in ovarian cancer?

Bowel obstruction is a common effect of advanced abdominal or pelvic cancers, including ovarian cancer. This is when something blocks either your large or small intestine. It is estimated that anywhere from 5.5 to 51 percent of people with stage III or stage IV ovarian cancer will develop a malignant (cancerous) bowel obstruction.3

Ovarian cancer usually spreads within the same area of the body. Tumors can form in the large and small intestines at either single or multiple sites. This can partially or totally block the bowel.3

Symptoms of a bowel obstruction may include:3

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Abdominal distension
  • Fewer bowel movements
  • Absence of hunger

How can GI symptoms be relieved?

Many GI issues can be prevented or reduced with healthy lifestyle behaviors and cancer screenings. Practicing good bowel habits can also help, including:2

  • Eating a high-fiber diet
  • Minimizing intake of caffeine
  • Drinking plenty of water, though check with your doctor if you have a fluid intake restriction
  • Exercising daily
  • Eating at regular intervals every day

Things to consider

Because ovarian cancer can cause GI symptoms that are very similar to things like IBS or general GI discomfort, it is important to monitor any symptoms you have. Make notes about how long the symptoms have lasted and whether they have gotten worse over time. Have the symptoms responded to anything you have done, like eating more fiber or daily exercise? If nothing has eased your symptoms, tell your doctor.

If you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, tell your doctor about your symptoms. They may want to do an exam to feel for any abnormalities and order any other tests that might help them determine the cause of your GI issues.

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Written by: Jaime Rochelle Herndon | Last reviewed: May 2021