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Symptoms absent in 80% of ovarian cancer patients

July 14, 2009 | 11:17 am

In recent years, women have been urged to learn the symptoms of ovarian cancer, such as bloating and abdominal pain, because the disease is difficult to detect in its early stages. Symptoms might tip off a woman and her doctor that a more specific test, such as transvaginal ultrasound, is needed.

While it's important to pay attention to symptoms, a new study has found that symptoms are absent in 80% of patients with ovarian cancer and that ultrasound alone was considerably better as a screening tool than symptoms alone. No combination of symptoms and ultrasound findings improved the detection of ovarian cancer compared with ultrasound alone.

The study, by researchers at the University of Kentucky, examined 272 women who had surgery because of an abnormal ultrasound test that indicated either a benign or cancerous tumor. The women were asked to recall any symptoms they had prior to surgery. The researchers found only six of 30 women with ovarian cancer had symptoms. The only value of using symptoms and ultrasound together was when both screening results were negative. In this case, negative findings in both could reduce unnecessary surgeries in women with benign conditions.

No one is saying that symptoms should be ignored, however. In an editorial accompanying the study, Dr. Ilana Cass of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles noted that the women in the study already had advanced-stage disease. It's possible that women with early-stage disease have a different cluster of symptoms than women with advanced disease. The earlier ovarian cancer is detected, the greater the chances of long-term survival. In addition, previous studies have found that using the CA 125 blood test -- a modestly accurate screening tool for ovarian cancer -- along with evaluating symptoms enhances the detection of the disease.

Symptoms should not be ignored, said the authors of the study, which was published online Monday in the journal Cancer.

"It is important to educate patients that informative symptoms should not be ignored and that the degree to which symptoms are a resultant indicator of early stage ovarian malignancy has yet to be determined," they wrote.

Moreover, checking for symptoms is easy, quick and inexpensive. The major symptoms linked to ovarian cancer are:

  • Pelvic pain
  • Abdominal pain
  • Increased abdominal size
  • Bloating
  • Feeling full
  • Difficulty eating

-- Shari Roan

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