Women Get New Guidance on the Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer
A coalition of cancer organizations, including the American Cancer Society, for the first time has issued a list of warning signs for ovarian cancer in the hope of leading to earlier diagnosis. Women have until now been told that ovarian cancerknown as the "silent killer"gives no hint of its presence until the tumor has spread. In fact, more than 70 percent of ovarian cancer patients are diagnosed with an advanced malignancy that can't be cured. Now a growing body of research suggests that the majority of women with early treatable ovarian cancer have one or more of the following symptoms:
*pelvic or abdominal pain
*difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
*urgent or frequent urination
"It's not just about having the symptoms occasionally," says Barbara Goff, professor and director of gynecologic oncology at the University of Washington in Seattle who conducted two of the studies that led to the consensus statement. "They should be new, occur almost daily, and persist for two to three weeks." Women who are experiencing one or more symptoms should see their gynecologist for a rectal-vaginal exam to probe the ovaries, an ultrasound to look for growths, and a blood test to measure CA-125 (a protein that's sometimes elevated with ovarian cancer). If these results indicate a likelihood of cancer, a biopsy of the ovary may be warranted.
Just as most breast lumps turn out to be benign, most women with these warning signs will find out they don't have cancer. The trouble is, they might have unnecessary invasive tests along the way. What's more, "there's no evidence yet that links early detection of ovarian cancer with saving lives," says Debbie Saslo, a molecular geneticist and director of breast and gynecologic cancer at the American Cancer Society. It could be, she says, that certain women have slow-growing tumors that cause symptoms for months while contained in the ovary, while others have tumors that grow and spread so quickly that early detection is impossible. Goff says studies are planned to see whether earlier detection through symptom recognition will indeed reduce mortality rates.
In the meantime, ovarian cancer advocates are hoping that the new statement will educate women and get them to their doctor just in case." I wasn't aware that the bloating and abdominal pain I had could be symptoms of ovarian cancer," says Sherry Salway Black, executive director of the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer five years ago. "This supports what survivors have been saying for a long time, that they had symptoms of the disease before it was diagnosed."