Ovarian cancer affects the ovaries, which are female reproductive organs that sit on either side of the uterus, or womb. This type of cancer may develop from various cell types in the ovaries or fallopian tubes. The most common type of ovarian cancer is an epithelial tumor called a serous carcinoma.
Ovarian cancer represents around 3 percent of cancer cases in women. In the United States, a female’s risk of developing ovarian cancer is around 1 in 78.
Understanding the symptoms of ovarian cancer can help a person get an early diagnosis. Missing a period can sometimes indicate ovarian cancer, but there are other more common symptoms.
In this article, we explore the link between ovarian cancer and missed periods. We also cover the symptoms and risk factors for this type of cancer and describe the outlook and when to see a doctor.
Can a missed period be a symptom of ovarian cancer?
There can be various reasons for a missed period.
According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), ovarian cancer can affect a person’s menstrual periods. Changes may include bleeding that is heavier than usual or otherwise irregular. Missing a period can be one example.
If a person has ovarian cancer, missing a period can be an early sign. But there are many more common reasons for missing a period. These include:
What counts as a missed period?
To tell when a period is missed, it is important to understand the length of a menstrual cycle.
Typically, a person’s cycle is between 24 and 38 days. The exact length varies for everyone and may change by a few days each month.
Knowing what is normal for a person can help them spot irregular or missed periods.
Irregular periods occur when the menstrual cycle length varies by more than 7–9 days. A missed period is when no bleeding happens for a whole menstrual cycle.
Does a missed period affect ovarian cancer risk?
Missing a period does not cause ovarian cancer. However, there may be a link between missing periods and an increased risk of developing the disease.
A 2016 study revealed that women with irregular menstrual cycles may have a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer. The researchers found that this risk increased with age.
Women with irregular menstrual cycles were twice as likely to have developed ovarian cancer by age 70 than women with regular menstrual cycles.
Understanding why the risk of developing ovarian cancer may increase for people with irregular periods will require more research, as scientists have yet to find a causal link.
Symptoms of ovarian cancer
Missing a period may be a symptom of ovarian cancer, but it is not the most common. According to the ACS, ovarian cancer typically causes:
- pelvic or belly pain
- the need to urinate frequently
- a person to eat less or feel full quickly
Having these symptoms does not necessarily mean that a person has ovarian cancer. There is often a less serious cause.
If the symptoms result from ovarian cancer, they will occur often and feel severe.
If these symptoms occur regularly, see a doctor. This way, if there is a problem, the doctor can diagnose and treat it quickly.
Beyond changes in periods, other less common symptoms of ovarian cancer may include:
- feeling extremely tired
- having an upset stomach
- being constipated
- having a swollen belly
- losing weight
- having painful sex
- experiencing back pain
Other risk factors
Factors that can increase a person’s risk of developing ovarian cancer include:
- having children after the age of 35 years
- never carrying a pregnancy to term
- being overweight or obese
- having a family history of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, or colorectal cancer
- using hormone therapy following menopause
- having a family cancer syndrome
- using fertility treatment, such as in vitro fertilization
When to see a doctor
A blood test will help eliminate other diagnoses.
The ACS state that a person should see a doctor if they experience common symptoms of ovarian cancer more than 12 times in a month.
Doctors will typically begin a diagnosis by asking about an individual’s symptoms and medical history. They may then examine the pelvis.
If a doctor suspects ovarian cancer, they may order one or more tests. These can include:
- imaging tests, such as an ultrasound, MRI, CT scan, or X-ray
- a laparoscopy or colonoscopy, which involve inserting a thin tube with a camera and light into a person’s body to check for signs of cancer
- a biopsy, which involves taking a sample of the ovaries and analyzing it
- blood tests to check overall health and rule out other conditions
If a person has ovarian cancer, an early diagnosis means that they can receive the necessary treatment as soon as possible.
Doctors may recommend screening for people with an increased risk.
Screening may involve one or both of the following tests:
- a transvaginal ultrasound, or TVUS
- a cancer antigen, or CA-125, blood test
The CA-125 blood test looks for a protein present on ovarian cancer cells.
A 2015 study found that interpreting the results of a CA-125 blood test using a risk of ovarian cancer algorithm may help doctors diagnose a higher percentage of people with ovarian cancer. The researchers compared the algorithm with the results of the blood test alone.
Around 20 percent of people with ovarian cancer receive an early diagnosis. Often, this type of cancer causes no symptoms in the early stages.
At present, there is no recommended screening test for people who have no symptoms and no increased risk of ovarian cancer.
Receiving a diagnosis and treatment early may improve a person’s outlook.
Around 94 percent of people live longer than 5 years after an early diagnosis of ovarian cancer.
Overexercising can cause missed periods.
Missed periods are usually not a sign of a serious condition, but they can indicate:
- low body weight
- excessive exercise
- hormonal imbalance
However, less commonly, missing a period or having irregular periods may indicate ovarian cancer. More common symptoms of ovarian cancer include:
- pelvic or belly pain
- eating less
- feeling full quickly
- feeling the need to urinate often
- urinating frequently
If a person has symptoms of ovarian cancer, they should see a doctor for an evaluation. The outlook for ovarian cancer can improve with early diagnosis and detection.