Abdominal Swelling and Bloating

When can abdominal bloating mean ovarian cancer?

In This Article

Could abdominal swelling and bloating be a sign of cancer, and if so, what type? What else other than ovarian cancer could be causing these symptoms?

Symptoms of Abdominal Swelling and Bloating

Abdominal bloating and swelling is described in many different ways. Some people describe it more as a symptom—as a feeling of indigestion or a tight abdomen, and some people define it more as a sign—that they can visually see that their belly is distended or their clothes look too tight around the middle.

Depending on the cause, this symptom can come on suddenly or gradually. It can be something that has recently appeared or a symptom that comes and goes.

Abdominal Swelling and Ovarian Cancer

Even though ovarian cancer is certainly not the most common cause of abdominal bloating—and is down on the list—it is an important cause of abdominal bloating. Among women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, it's been found that this bloating is often attributed to something else, such as middle age spread or winter weight gain.

While ovarian cancer isn't the most common cause of abdominal swelling and bloating, these symptoms are one of the more common symptoms of ovarian cancer. It is also a symptom that is most ignored. The bloating may be so bad that one can't button their pants, or even have to go up a size.

Symptoms of ovarian cancer may also include pelvic pain, pain with intercourse, and frequent urination, but it is also considered the silent killer. In the early stages, the only symptom may be a feeling of being full quickly when eating—in other words bloating—so it is important to make sure you get your symptoms evaluated thoroughly. It's also important to note that sometimes people have two conditions at the same time. For example, someone could have both irritable bowel syndrome and ovarian cancer, so trust your instinct. If your doctor does not seem as concerned as you are, get a second opinion.

Ovarian cancer is not a common cancer in women, but it's the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths in women—most likely due to the fact that the diagnosis is missed until it has progressed to the later stages of the disease.​

Other Serious Causes of Abdominal Swelling and Bloating

We will get to the most common causes below, but it's important to first mention some causes of these symptoms that are not ovarian cancer but are quite serious. Some of these may include:

  • Abdominal tumors - Tumors, both benign and malignant may occur in the abdomen, including not only those of the abdominal organs but lymphomas as well.
  • Ascites - Ascites refers to an excess amount of peritoneal fluid and can cause extreme bloating. It is most often caused by the presence of tumor metastases in the abdomen (such as from ovarian cancer) and with liver conditions such as cirrhosis. When it is related to liver abnormalities it is often accompanied by jaundice — a yellowish discoloration of the skin.
  • Celiac disease - Celiac disease is a condition in which eating gluten damages the small intestine, and is found in roughly 1 in 100 people.
  • Pancreatic insufficiency.
  • Dumping syndrome.
  • Pancreatic cancer - Unfortunately, symptoms of pancreatic cancer often don't appear until the disease is quite advanced, but these can include abdominal bloating and pain.
  • Stomach cancer - Stomach cancer is more common in parts of the world outside of the United States but can be an important cause of abdominal bloating.
  • Colon cancer - Colon cancer can also have symptoms of bloating as an initial symptom, especially when it causes a bowel obstruction.

The Most Common Causes

If abdominal swelling and bloating aren't ovarian cancer or something else that is scary, what else could it be? Thankfully, the most common causes are not related to cancer. Some causes may include:

  • Constipation - Constipation is a common cause of abdominal swelling and bloating, and one that many people experience at times. Unfortunately, it can also mask the diagnosis of other causes, so any constipation that is lingering and persistent should be evaluated by your doctor.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome - Irritable bowel syndrome is a "functional" gastrointestinal disorder which affects up to 15% of the population and results in recurrent abdominal bloating and swelling along with other bowel symptoms.
  • Lactose intolerance - You may think of lactose intolerance as being something you are born with, but lactose intolerance may develop at any time over the course of your life. Many people first notice this based on symptoms of recurrent abdominal bloating.
  • Foods that cause bloating and overeating - Certainly overeating can cause you to feel bloated, but some foods are much more likely to do this than others. High on the list of suspects include broccoli, Brussel sprouts, beans, some fruits, and alcoholic and carbonated beverages.
  • Weight gain
  • GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease)
  • Swallowing air
  • Hernias - Both external and internal abdominal hernias
  • Ovarian cysts
  • Uterine fibroids
  • Peptic ulcer disease
  • Intestinal infections, especially parasitic infections such as giardia, amebiasis, and hookworms
  • Small bowel bacterial overgrowth

When to See a Doctor

As noted earlier, the symptom of abdominal bloating is most commonly caused by conditions that are more of a nuisance than life-threatening. That said, it is often the first symptom of ovarian cancer which is the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths in women and often diagnosed when it is "too late," at least to be curable.

Whether your symptoms are due to a "serious" cause or not, it is important to see your doctor. So-called "nuisance symptoms" can interfere with your quality of life, and by that measure, are not just a nuisance. If your symptoms do not improve with whatever treatment is recommended, talk to your doctor or seek out a second opinion. In our overworked, over busy society, it's important to be your own advocate in your medical care, no matter what your symptoms or the condition that is responsible.

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Article Sources

  • Abraczinskas, D., and S. Goldfinger. Abdominal gas and bloating. UpToDate. http://www.uptodate.com/contents/intestinal-gas-and-bloating

  • U.S. National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus. Abdominal Bloating. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003123.htm