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By knowing the symptoms to look out for, women are more likely to visit their GP sooner, increasing their chances of being diagnosed earlier.

The key symptoms of ovarian cancer are:

  • Persistent abdominal distension (bloated tummy)
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain (tummy pain)
  • Feeling full (early satiety) and/or loss of appetite (always feeling full)
  • Increased urinary urgency and/or frequency (needing to wee more)

Symptoms can also include:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Unexplained fatigue
  • Unexplained changes in bowel habit11,12

Women in the general population were asked to say which symptoms they think might be linked to ovarian cancer in every Pathfinder to date. Table 1 shows awareness over time for the four primary symptoms.

Table 1 – Ability of women in the general population to name one of the four main symptoms of ovarian cancer (unprompted)

Pathfinder Persistent bloating (per cent) Pelvic or abdominal pain (per cent) Feeling full/loss of appetite (per cent) Increased urinary urgency/frequency (per cent)
2009 9 24 1 1
2012 17 28 2 1
2016 20 20 3 2

While awareness of loss of appetite and urinary frequency as symptoms has remained  low and awareness of the symptom of pelvic or abdominal pain has fluctuated, awareness  of bloating as a symptom has gradually risen, although is now levelling off. Unprompted awareness of any of the symptoms has never risen above 30 per cent.

Making sure women know the symptoms to look out for is the first step in ensuring more women are diagnosed sooner, yet at the moment too few women know the warning signs of ovarian cancer.

Low and often misplaced confidence 

Women were asked how confident they were at spotting a symptom of ovarian cancer and 27 per cent said they felt confident, including only four per cent who were very confident they could spot a symptom. This is little changed from 2009 and 2012.

However, as Table 2 shows, this confidence is often misplaced, with almost half of those women confident they could spot a symptom unable to correctly identify a single one.

Table 2 – Ability of those confident at spotting a symptom of ovarian cancer to name at least one recognised symptom

How confident are you that you would notice an ovarian cancer symptom

Can name any recognised symptom (per cent)



Not at all confident



Not very confident



Fairly confident



Very confident



Symptoms: persistent abdominal distension (bloating), feeling full and/or loss of appetite, pelvic or abdominal pain, increased urinary urgency and/or frequency, unexplained weight loss, unexplained fatigue and unexplained changes in bowel habit

Confusion with cervical cancer 

More women now understand the distinction between cervical and ovarian cancer. While in 2012, 47 per cent of women believed that cervical screening also detects ovarian cancer, by 2016 this had fallen to 31 per cent. That still leaves nearly one in three women wrongly believing that cervical screening also detects ovarian cancer.

The confusion between ovarian and cervical cancer is reflected in awareness of symptoms, with 19 per cent of women saying they thought bleeding might be a symptom of ovarian cancer. Unusual bleeding is a key symptom of cervical cancer.