Ovarian cancer is among the five leading causes of cancer death in women, and the deadliest of all the gynecological cancers. Symptoms aren’t always noticeable until later in the disease’s progress, and routine screening for women with no symptoms or risk factors has been unreliable.
In fact, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a federal advisory panel of health experts, recommends against annual screening for women at low or moderate risk because of unacceptably high rates of false-positive results.
But the lack of a sufficient routine screening for ovarian cancer doesn’t mean it can’t be detected early. “Asking women about the frequency and duration of unexplained stomach discomfort or having them complete a survey that takes only a minute or two to fill out can provide important clues that suggest the need for additional evaluation despite whether patients are at high risk,” says Edward Wallach, M.D., professor of gynecology and obstetrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. Certain seemingly harmless or vague warning signs may indicate the possibility of cancer:
• Increased abdominal girth
• Pelvic pain
• Difficulty eating
• Feeling full quickly
Other symptoms may include frequent urination, urinary urgency, unexplained vaginal bleeding, fatigu,e and shortness of breath. Symptoms are more likely if the disease has spread beyond the ovaries.
When to see your doctor
If you’re experiencing symptoms or any of the early warning signs mentioned above—whether they’re new to you or if you’ve had them for a prolonged period—it’s important to let your primary healthcare physician or gynecologist know. He or she can determine whether testing for the presence of ovarian cancer is warranted.
Having these symptoms doesn’t mean you have cancer. But because these symptoms are common to other conditions, many women don’t bring them up when visiting their doctors. A 2012 study from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle suggests that gynecologists can identify women who need further evaluation by having their patients complete a simple questionnaire that asks about these early warning signs.
According to evidence cited in the study, which appeared in Open Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 57 percent of women with early-stage ovarian cancer and 80 percent of women with advanced cancer experience some of these symptoms.
Unfortunately, more than 70 percent of women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed when the disease is in its advanced stages, according to a 2007 study in Cancer. Their survival rates are grim: Only 20 to 30 percent are still alive after five years. But when the disease is found early and hasn’t spread beyond the ovary, the survival rate is 70 to 90 percent.
With knowledge of these symptoms, doctors can decide who may be candidates for additional screening and potentially diagnose women whose cancer would have otherwise gone undetected until it reached a later stage when symptoms are more prominent.
Although experts don’t recommend routine ovarian cancer screenings for women of average risk, two major medical societies, the American Cancer Society and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, suggest that routine screening with a blood test or pelvic ultrasound (or a combination of the two) may be appropriate for some women considered at risk for developing ovarian cancer.
If you’re at risk, talk with your doctor about whether screening is right for you.