Ovarian Cancer Symptoms Give Hope for Early Diagnosis and Treatment

September 27, 2011

Ovarian cancer, long considered a silent killer because of the lack of warning signs, may not be so silent. A new consensus statement released by the Gynecological Cancer Foundation reveals that women who have developed ovarian cancer may have had common disease symptoms.

Ovarian cancer, long considered a silent killer because of the lack of warning signs, may not be so silent. A new consensus statement released by the Gynecological Cancer Foundation reveals that women who have developed ovarian cancer may have had common disease symptoms.

These symptoms include:

Bloating

Pelvic or abdominal pain

Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly

Urinary urgency or frequency

Women who experience these symptoms on a daily basis for several weeks should visit their doctor. Ovarian cancer usually happens in women over age 50, but it can also affect younger women. Its cause is unknown.

“This agreement on common symptoms of ovarian cancer hopefully will lead to earlier diagnosis when a cure is more likely,” said Barbara Goff, M.D., professor and director of gynecologic oncology at the University of Washington in Seattle, in a statement issued by the Gynecological Cancer Foundation. “We know that when women are diagnosed in Stage I of the disease, it is 90 percent curable. Unfortunately, until now there has been no agreement on common symptoms, allowing women to go undiagnosed, despite visits to the doctor, until it was too late.”

Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cause of death from cancer among women, according to the American Cancer Society. An estimated 20,000 American women develop the disease and 15,000 women die from it each year. Early diagnosis of ovarian cancer can dramatically improve survival rates, but the vast majority of cases are not diagnosed until the disease has spread into neighboring tissues and organs beyond the ovaries.

There is currently no consistent, reliable screening test to detect ovarian cancer. As part of a woman’s annual gynecologic care, the doctor will perform a pelvic examination to determine if there is any abnormal swell or tenderness that may indicate a problem.

For women who have an abnormal pelvic examination, are at high risk for the disease or have a family history of the disease, the doctor may conduct a blood test to see if there are markers in the blood for ovarian cancer. The test, however, is not definitive and is most useful in women who are postmenopausal. Ultrasound can also be used to detect abnormalities in the ovaries. These examination options should be discussed with a physician, because there are advantages and disadvantages of undergoing such tests, including false positives and unnecessary procedures.

There are several factors that may lower the risk of ovarian cancer. These include:

Oral contraception: Certain studies have shown that women who use birth control pills for at least three years or longer reduce their risk of developing ovarian cancer by thirty to fifty percent.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding: A full-term pregnancy of at least one child appears to lower the risk of ovarian cancer. And breastfeeding for twelve months or longer appears to lower the risk of both breast and ovarian cancer.

Certain surgical procedures: Some studies show that tubal ligations and hysterectomies may reduce the risk of ovarian cancer.

“There are no research studies that prove that the group of symptoms that have been associated with ovarian cancer will lead to earlier diagnosis,” said, Carol L. Brown, M.D., an assistant attending surgeon at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. “But it is hoped that by recognizing these signs earlier will help women get appropriate diagnosis and treatment by a gynecologic oncologist.”

Early detection is the key to successfully treating most cancers. As more women learn about symptoms that are associated with ovarian cancer, timely diagnosis and treatments will increase, leading to a reduction in the number of deaths from this disease.

September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. For more information about ovarian cancer symptoms, diagnosis and treatment, visit the Women’s Cancer Network Web site, http://www.wcn.org , a project developed by the Gynecologic Cancer Foundation for women and their families.

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© August 30, 2007 Society for Women's Health Research