Spotting the Signs of Ovarian Cancer by Dr Philippa Kaye

Shutterstock / Ground Picture © Mature woman on sofa at home

March is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, and Dr Philippa Kaye is here to advise on the symptoms of this condition, the sixth commonest cancer

Dr Philippa Kaye

Dr Philippa Kaye

Gracie was 64 and described herself as having been fit and healthy her whole life. She said she didn’t feel unwell in herself as such, so wasn’t sure if she should have come, but things weren’t quite right and she wanted to be careful.

Although she had been bloated in the past after eating, it had always gone down. Now it never seemed to go down. She also said that she felt hungry as usual before mealtimes but was eating far less – she seemed to get full after eating much less than before. She wanted to check if this was normal.

While these symptoms are vague, it was important to check it out and an ultrasound scan and blood tests were requested.

Unfortunately the scan and bloods were suggestive of ovarian cancer and Gracie was referred to the hospital on an urgent suspected cancer referral.

At the time of writing, Gracie has had scans and surgery to remove her ovaries and womb. She is waiting to hear if further treatment might be needed.

Symptoms of ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer is the sixth commonest cancer in the UK, with approximately 7,500 cases diagnosed each year. Unfortunately it is the leading cause of death from gynaecological – or women’s health – cancers, probably because it is often diagnosed later than other cancers as symptoms can be very vague.

It tends to occur in women after the menopause and the exact cause of ovarian cancer is unknown. However it is linked with age, smoking, lack of exercise, being overweight, some fertility drugs such as clomiphene and a family history of ovarian cancer.

Currently there is no screening programme for ovarian cancer in the UK.

Symptoms can be vague. They include feeling bloated – not the common kind most of us get, often related to food, but a persistent bloating that does not go away. There may be abdominal pain, feeling full after eating less than usual, swollen abdomen and sometimes urinary symptoms such as needing to go to the toilet more often.

Scans and blood test may be offered

If you have symptoms that could be related to ovarian cancer, your doctor is likely to perform investigations such as an ultrasound scan and a blood test. The blood test looks for a tumour marker called Ca-125 which becomes raised in ovarian cancer. The Ca-125 blood test is not a specific blood test for ovarian cancer though, as it can be raised for other reasons.

If an ovarian cyst is found on your ultrasound scan, but is a simple cyst with no internal walls or other complications and the Ca-125 is low, the likelihood of ovarian cancer is also low.

If however there is a complex cyst, or other signs on scan and the Ca-125 is raised, then the risk of ovarian cancer is higher. Your GP may refer you on via a suspected cancer referral to the local hospital to see a gynaecologist. You may be offered other investigations such as CT scans.

The four stages of ovarian cancer:

  • Stage 1 – the cancer affects one or both of the ovaries with no spread.
  • Stage 2 – the cancer has spread to the womb or other parts of the pelvis
  • Stage 3 – the cancer has spread further, to lymph nodes, the bowel or the lining of the abdomen
  • Stage 4 – the cancer has spread to other organs such as the lungs or the liver.

The earlier the stage at which the cancer is diagnosed, the more likelihood there is that there will be a better outcome.

Treatments for ovarian cancer


Surgery is the mainstay of treatment. It tends to involve removing the ovaries, fallopian tubes (between the ovaries and womb), the womb and some of the lining of the tummy. This requires a few days in hospital and tends to take about six weeks to fully recover from.


Chemotherapy is used to remove any remaining cancer cells or to shrink a tumour in order to perform surgery.


Radiotherapy is used less frequently for ovarian cancer, but again can be used to treat any remaining cancer cells or to shrink a tumour before surgery.

Advice given in this article and on the My Weekly website and magazines is not meant to replace personalised medical advice from your doctor. If you have any health concerns please see your doctor.

Article written on November 21, 2019; article reviewed and updated on March 20, 2024

Each week we’ll ask Dr Philippa Kaye to talk about a prominent health issue, so look out for more articles in our health and wellbeing section in coming weeks. Read her advice on Endometriosis and Long Covid now.