Ovarian Cancer: Educating Women about Symptoms

woman in Doctor's office with abdominal discomfortIn my last blog post, I talked about Chris Evert’s ovarian cancer diagnosis and the importance of knowing your family medical history. While reviewing my medical journals this month, I found another reason to write about ovarian cancer:  the importance of recognizing symptoms.

About OVarian Cancer

About 13,000 women in the U.S. die of ovarian cancer each year—making it the deadliest of all cancers of a woman’s reproductive system. Survival rates are poor because the cancer is usually not discovered until an advanced stage (III or IV). Only about 10 to 30% of women diagnosed in this stage will survive their cancer, compared with 70% to 90% survival at stage I or II.

Gynecologists have understood for decades that finding a way to diagnose ovarian cancer early would save lives. So far, research has not identified a screening test or combination that has produced better results than routine care. At this time, early diagnosis depends on a woman’s awareness of her family history and alertness to new symptoms.

For ovarian cancer, the early symptoms that warn a woman of the need to see her doctor are subtle or not  specific. Mild discomfort or another subtle change rarely gets her attention in the course of her busy life, or is easily attributed to any number of common minor conditions (irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, stress, gastritis, etc.).

Campaigns like the CDC’s Inside Knowledge have tried to alert women to the early symptoms of ovarian cancer despite unclear evidence that such programs would make a difference. However, a new study published just this month has reinforced the value of educating women about symptom awareness.

New Research about recognizing early symptoms

The new research demonstrates that ovarian cancer may not be so “silent” in its early stages. Symptoms like abdominal pain, increased abdominal size, and bloating—common with late-stage ovarian cancer—actually begin to appear earlier in the disease process. A woman who has begun to notice one or more of these discomforts may decide she is having digestive problems or just gaining weight. After all, everyone experiences these annoyances now and then.

This study reviewing the medical records of a large group of women with early-stage ovarian cancer revealed that nearly three-fourths of them reported one or more symptoms common with the disease. The most common symptoms reported were pelvic or abdominal pain, increased abdominal size, and fullness or bloating. Other research has identified difficulty eating or feeling full quickly. And some studies have found that—compared with non-cancer patients who report these discomforts—ovarian cancer patients only recently noticed the symptoms (less than a year) and now have them very frequently (many times per month).

Symptoms of ovarian cancer to let your doctor know about

This new information is important for women and their doctors. We remind you not to ignore something that is new or different. Make a prompt appointment to see your doctor. Be prepared to describe which symptoms you are having:

  • Pain or discomfort in the abdomen or lower in the pelvis
  • Abdomen increasing in size
  • Feeling of fullness or bloating
  • Difficulty eating
  • Feeling full too quickly when eating
  • Urinary symptoms
  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding
  • Other digestive symptoms

Tell your doctor how often you experience the symptom and how long ago you first noticed it. Update your family medical history if it has changed. Know what is normal for you. Symptom awareness can increase your chance of an early diagnosis and a better treatment outcome. In the words of one ovarian cancer survivor, “Ladies, there is no test for ovarian cancer. Until these awesome researchers come up with one, we have to know our bodies!”

Best wishes,

Dr. Judi Favor