Although endometriosis and ovarian cancer can have similar symptoms — such as bloating, pressure, and pelvic pain — the two are distinctly different conditions. However, people with endometriosis may have a slightly higher risk of developing ovarian cancer.
Endometriosis is a chronic condition in which endometrial-like cells, which are similar to the cells inside the uterus, grow in other parts of the body. People with endometriosis can have severe pelvic pain, heavy menstrual bleeding, and difficulty getting pregnant.
Ovarian cancer also involves abnormal tissue growth that can affect the reproductive system. Unlike endometrial cells, these cancerous growths are not benign. They can damage healthy cells and spread to other parts of the body.
Although ovarian cancer shares some symptoms with endometriosis, its symptoms are less likely to be associated with the menstrual cycle.
Endometriosis and ovarian cancer similarities
Endometriosis is a common condition. An estimated 11% of women between the ages of 15 and 44 years in the United States have undiagnosed endometriosis.
When people have endometriosis, lesions of tissue similar to endometrial tissue grow outside the uterus. They usually grow in the pelvic area, such as on the ovaries and peritoneum.
These tissues can lead to scarring and adhesions that can damage or block the reproductive organs.
Although the growths are benign, endometriosis still has similarities to ovarian cancer, which causes cancerous growths. As with ovarian cancer, endometriosis can increase in size over time, damaging the surrounding organs.
As both conditions cause abnormal growths in the pelvic area, they may have common symptoms, such as pelvic pain, pressure, and bloating.
Is it endometriosis or ovarian cancer?
Some of the symptoms of endometriosis are similar to those of ovarian cancer, but the conditions have some distinct differences.
Endometriosis usually affects people who are actively menstruating. However, in rare cases, people can have endometriosis after menopause and after having a hysterectomy.
Symptoms of the disease include:
- severe pain in the lower abdomen
- debilitating period pain
- pain during or after sex
- nausea, diarrhea, or constipation during periods
- blood in urine during periods
- painful bowel movements or pain while urinating during periods
Endometriosis is a progressive disease, which means it can worsen over time. It can negatively affect a person’s fertility, making it harder to get pregnant.
Ovarian cancer symptoms
Although ovarian cancer can affect any person with ovaries, it is most common in women who have gone through menopause. However, people with a family history of breast and ovarian cancers may be at a higher risk of getting it.
Additionally, people with endometriosis have slightly higher rates of ovarian cancer than the general population.
Common symptoms of ovarian cancer include:
- persistent bloating
- stomach pain that does not go away
- an urge to urinate more frequently than usual
- difficulty eating and a feeling of fullness
- changes in bowel habits, such as needing to go more or less often than normal
- unexplained weight loss
Does endometriosis cause ovarian cancer?
Although endometriosis does not necessarily cause ovarian cancer, research shows that it increases a person’s cancer risk.
One study found that people with endometriosis developed ovarian cancer at 1.7 times the rate of the general population. However, researchers struggle to find accurate data on the link between the conditions.
This is because endometriosis often goes underdiagnosed — many people with the condition receive an inaccurate diagnosis or find that doctors disregard their pain. Additionally, to receive a definitive diagnosis, a person needs to undergo a laparoscopic surgical procedure to remove and biopsy endometrial tissue.
While it is unclear how significantly endometriosis increases a person’s cancer risk, it is clear that a link between the conditions does exist. Endometriosis may heighten the risk of ovarian cancer for a variety of reasons, such as by:
- producing a high concentration of estrogen, which can promote tumor growth
- causing mutations in the tumor-suppressing ARID1A gene
- displacing endometrial cells to the pelvis by menstrual flow, which become invasive over time
Other research indicates that in some people, endometriosis may be a precursor to type 1 epithelial ovarian cancers. Experts believe this is due to gene mutations that contribute to abnormal tissue and tumor growth.
However, researchers do not yet understand the link between the conditions, and more research is needed to discover if and how endometriosis may cause ovarian cancer.
There is currently no known way to prevent endometriosis. However, people with the condition can take action to stop it from getting worse.
If someone has symptoms of endometriosis, they should push for an evaluation. Once doctors diagnose the condition, they can prescribe certain forms of birth control to slow the disease’s progression, and laparoscopic surgery can remove endometrial scar tissue.
While there is no surefire way to prevent ovarian cancer, a person can take certain measures to reduce their risk of getting the disease. These include:
- Avoiding certain risk factors
- Maintaining a moderate weight, avoiding smoking, and living an active lifestyle may reduce a person’s risk of getting ovarian cancer.
Some research indicates that taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT) after menopause may increase a person’s risk, though this is controversial. A large study from the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) did not find that HRT raised ovarian cancer risk.
Taking oral contraceptives
Using birth control pills decreases the risk of ovarian cancer, especially if a person uses them for several years. Individuals can contact a doctor to discuss the best option for them.
Getting genetic testing and counseling
Genetic testing can help a person assess their genetic risk of developing ovarian cancer. Individuals may want to speak with a doctor to decide whether genetic counseling is necessary.
Undergoing gynecologic surgery
Hysterectomy and salpingectomy — the removal of one or both fallopian tubes — reduce the risk of ovarian cancer. These are serious procedures a person should only consider for valid reasons, such as having a family history of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, or both.
Endometriosis and ovarian cancer share common symptoms, but they are two distinctly different conditions. While research has not yet been able to link the two definitively, studies have shown that women with endometriosis are at a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer.
There is no way to prevent endometriosis, but people can take steps to manage the condition. They can manage personal risk factors, undergo genetic counseling, and take birth control pills to reduce their risk of ovarian cancer.
If people have symptoms of ovarian cancer or endometriosis, they should contact a doctor or gynecologist.