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Living Well

Ovarian Cancer Update: Symptom Checklist Helps Spot Women at Risk

Last updated: Sep 11, 2017

Ovarian cancer is the deadliest cancer of the female reproductive system. That’s partly because more than 70 percent of women are not diagnosed until the cancer has spread. The good news: nearly all the cases that are caught early can be cured. However, screening tests, including pelvic exams, ultrasound, and blood tests, have proved unreliable. In fact, the American College of Physicians does not recommend pelvic exams as a screening method for women who have no symptoms of gynecological conditions.

The findings of a small study, published in the journal Cancer, could help women and their doctors spot this cancer sooner. The study included both women with ovarian cancer and women who were at high risk for the disease.

To develop the symptom checklist, researchers randomly split the women into two groups. They asked the first group of women to report whether, and how often, they experienced each of 23 symptoms reported by women who have had ovarian cancer.

Pelvic and Gastrointestinal Problems Are Key Symptoms

The results from this group revealed patterns in both common symptoms and frequency among the women with cancer. They most frequently experienced the following symptoms more than 12 times monthly, but for less than one year prior:

  • Pain in the pelvis or abdomen
  • A need or urge to urinate often
  • Swollen stomach
  • Feeling full quickly and finding it hard to eat.

The researchers then tested the checklist on the second group of women. A total of 57 percent of those with early-stage cancer had at least one of these signs at the same frequency. Plus, this list accurately ruled out cancer 87 to 90 percent of the time, depending on the woman’s age.

A Few Months Can Make a Big Difference

Tell your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms. The presence and frequency of these symptoms, which have been shown in several studies to be the most common, may help detect ovarian cancer three to six months earlier than current methods. Since ovarian cancer gets worse quickly, that time may be lifesaving.

The findings from this study are a step in the right direction toward developing an effective screening method for ovarian cancer. But more research is needed before a reliable, proven screening test can be in use.