Ovarian Cancer Symptoms: Weight Loss

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: May 2021

The symptoms of ovarian cancer can be hard to pinpoint. Ovarian cancer can cause some general symptoms that may also be caused by other conditions. This may be why ovarian cancer is not typically caught in its early stages.

Weight loss is a common symptom of many cancers, especially advanced cancer. The weight loss is typically unexplained, or weight loss that occurs without trying to lose weight. An unexplained weight loss of 10 pounds or more maybe 1 of the first signs of cancer.1,2

It is estimated that about 40 percent of people diagnosed with cancer experienced weight loss as 1 of the first signs of disease. While it may not always happen with ovarian cancer, it is possible.1,2

What causes weight loss in ovarian cancer?

In cancer, especially advanced disease, weight loss can be a common symptom. This can be due to many things, depending on the type of cancer and where it has spread. Some possible reasons can include:2,3

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  • Nausea or lack of appetite
  • The cancer itself. Cancer cells use up a lot of energy and can produce substances that affect the way the body processes food energy (metabolism)
  • Having trouble chewing and/or swallowing food
  • Any intestinal blockages that may cause an early feeling of fullness, affecting hunger cues

In ovarian cancer, you might also have overall weight loss but still experience a swollen or bloated abdomen.

Cachexia often occurs in advanced cancer. Cachexia is weight loss along with a significant loss of muscle mass. The body starts breaking down skeletal muscle and adipose tissue, which stores fat. This can make everyday activities very hard to do since this results in a loss of strength.4

Weight loss is also commonly seen during ovarian cancer treatment. This is because treatments can cause side effects of nausea, vomiting, mouth sores, or a change in how foods taste. If you are undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer and are losing weight, talk to your care team about steps you can take to get enough nutrition.5

Treating weight loss in ovarian cancer

Talk with your doctor about your weight loss and whether you might need to gain weight. This can help you get the nutrition you need to maintain strength during your treatment. Many cancer treatment teams have a nutritionist or dietitian available to help. Ask your oncologist if there is a nutritionist or dietitian on staff who specializes in working with people living with cancer.

Some things you can do to help your body get the nutrients and calories it needs can include:5

  • If you drink milk, switch from skim to whole
  • Put cheese on sandwiches, soups, or other foods
  • Put peanut butter on toast or add it into smoothies or milkshakes
  • Eat more beans or tofu
  • Use whole wheat pastas and add cream to sauces
  • Stay hydrated and drink plenty of fluids (check with your doctor if you have a fluid intake restriction)
  • Cook with olive oil

Ask your doctor if supplemental nutrition drinks like Boost or Ensure would be helpful, especially if you find it hard to eat more.

While weight loss does occur in many people with advanced ovarian cancer, there are ways to help you get the nutrition you need and maintain a healthy weight. Your treatment team can work with you to find a nutritional plan that fits your specific needs and dietary preferences.