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Landmark Consensus on Ovarian Cancer Symptoms
Ovarian cancer has long been considered a silent killer without any symptoms until the latest stages of illness. But new research overturns this conventional view: specific symptoms do, in fact, afflict early-stage patients. While not diagnostic for ovarian cancer on their own, certain complaints indicate that a patient should see a gynecologist so that further testing can be done.
In the wake of the crucial findings, many organizations concerned with cancer have come together to support the first national consensus statement on ovarian cancer symptoms. According to the Gynecologic Cancer Foundation, which spearheaded the effort, the most important warning signs include:
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
- Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
- Urinary symptoms, including urgency or frequency
“Women who have these symptoms almost daily for more than a few weeks should see their doctor, preferably a gynecologist,” says gynecologic oncologist Barbara A. Goff, M.D., of the University of Washington in Seattle, whose research made the symptom list possible. Goff adds that other symptoms reported by ovarian cancer patients at the outset of the disease include fatigue, indigestion, back pain, pain with intercourse, constipation and menstrual irregularities. “But these are not as useful in identifying ovarian cancer because they are also found in equal frequency in women in the general population who do not have ovarian cancer,” she states.
Goff and others consider the national consensus a milestone in their effort to save lives. “This agreement on common symptoms of ovarian cancer hopefully will lead to earlier diagnosis, when a cure is more likely,” Goff says. “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.”
Unlike with cervical cancer, says Karen Carlson, executive director of the Gynecologic Cancer Foundation, there is no screening test for ovarian cancer, making symptom recognition and regular pelvic exams the primary ways to detect the cancer early.
“Now that we agree about the symptoms, we must get this information into the hands of women and front-line physicians,” says Pamela J. Faerber of Ovar’coming Together, an Indiana-based advocacy group. “When a woman complains of these symptoms, ovarian cancer must be considered.”
Goff emphasizes that such patients are often shunted to gastroenterologists, who label them with other diagnoses, then try to treat the wrong disease. When the cancer is finally diagnosed, it is much further along. Before a patient with the target symptoms seeks any other treatment, she should first see a gynecologist and get a rectal-pelvic exam or a transvaginal ultrasound, which can diagnose ovarian cancer in the earliest stages of disease. (Supporting organizations on page 30.