Harvard Women's Health Watch

In Brief: Certain symptoms may be early signs of ovarian cancer

In Brief

Certain symptoms may be early signs of ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer has long been called a "silent killer," because symptoms are thought to develop only after the disease has reached an advanced stage and is largely incurable. But health experts have identified a set of physical complaints that often occur in women who have ovarian cancer and may be early warning signs. These symptoms are very common, and most women with them do not have ovarian cancer. But for the women who do, the hope is that greater awareness will lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment.

In June 2007, the Gynecologic Cancer Foundation, the Society of Gynecologic Oncologists, and the American Cancer Society issued a consensus statement highlighting four symptoms that are more likely to occur in women with ovarian cancer than in women in the general population. These symptoms are bloating or increased abdominal size; pelvic or abdominal pain; difficulty eating or feeling full quickly; and urinary frequency or urgency.

The statement recommends that any woman who experiences one or more of these complaints almost daily for more than a few weeks should see a clinician (preferably a gynecologist) for a thorough pelvic exam. Pelvic exams that raise suspicions are usually followed up with a noninvasive test called transvaginal ultrasound and possibly a blood test for a marker called CA-125, which is sometimes elevated in women with ovarian cancer. (By itself, CA-125 testing is not a good screening tool.) The only way to diagnose ovarian cancer is during surgery, which is best performed by a gynecologic oncologist or other surgeon skilled in ovarian cancer.

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