The Pitfalls and Promises of Diagnosing Ovarian Cancer Early

Ovarian cancer, also known as “the silent killer,” may soon be detected earlier, giving women improved survival rates, with the recognition of specific early warning signs which including abdominal pain, abdominal bloating, urinary urgency or frequency, pelvic and lower back pressure, loss of appetite or feeling full quickly and abnormal vaginal bleeding.

Society for Women’s Health Research

Ovarian cancer, one of the deadliest cancers among women, is often detected too late to be cured. A new study indicates that early symptoms are often overlooked by patients and doctors. Better recognition of early symptoms and research to improve detection methods and treatments are key to saving patients’ lives.

Researchers at the Sacramento campus of the University of California—Davis (UC Davis) School of Medicine discovered that women with ovarian cancer actually complain of symptoms months before the diagnosis. The researchers looked at the medical records of thousands of women and found that patients with ovarian cancer were more likely to complain of “target symptoms,” including abdominal pain and swelling more than six months before an official diagnosis.

The study suggests that ovarian cancer might be detected earlier in certain patients. Women should pay attention to any new symptom and report it to their doctors immediately. Some of the more common symptoms of ovarian cancer include: abdominal pain and cramping, pelvic and lower back pressure, abnormal vaginal bleeding and a change in bowel or bladder habits.

Ovarian cancer is the number four cancer killer among American women. It’s been dubbed, “the silent cancer,” because most women do not realize they have it for quite some time. Many patients who experience the initial vague symptoms attribute them to something else. As a result, the vast majority of cases are diagnosed after the disease has spread. If not detected early, ovarian cancer can wreak havoc on the body.

“As it spreads in the abdominal cavity, it interferes with intestinal function, can cause blockage, and ultimately loss of nutritional function,” says Lloyd Smith MD, PhD, lead researcher of the study and chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at UC Davis. “The disease can also sometimes spread to other organs like the liver and lungs. Ovarian cancer can be detected by physical (pelvic) exam, by imaging studies (such as ultrasound) or by blood testing.”

If detected early, ovarian cancer has a 95 percent five-year survival rate. However, women are not effectively screened for this type of cancer. Too many cases are detected in later stages, making survival much less likely.

Although detecting ovarian cancer is possible, much more research is needed to improve testing procedures. “All tests have pitfalls,” Smith says. “You can have false negative or false positive tests. Ultimately, some form of intervention, like surgery, is required to confirm the diagnosis.”

Advances in ovarian cancer detection and treatment are dependent upon research. A major source of research support in the United States is the Department of Defense Ovarian Cancer Research Program.

“The Department of Defense program has fostered research that has identified the role of the hormone progestin in oral contraceptives as the key agent in reducing the risk of ovarian cancer,” says Sherry Marts, PhD, director of scientific affairs at the Society for Women’s Health Research. “It is also supporting research that has advanced our understanding of biomarkers that can alert doctors to the presence of early stage ovarian cancer, which would significantly improve early detection and survival.”

According to the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, however, $37 million of ovarian cancer proposals ranked excellent or outstanding have not been funded by the Department of Defense program because of limited resources.

“The treatment of ovarian cancer has improved a lot in the last 10 to 15 years thanks to more aggressive surgery and better chemotherapy drugs,” Smith says. “Newer forms of therapy based on tumor molecular biology hold some promise for the future.”

Despite the strides made, Marts says, more research is needed to translate promising research into effective clinical screening tools and early detection methods in the fight against ovarian cancer.