Cancer Cancer Screening and Prevention

What Are the Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer?

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Summary & Participants

Most women will survive ovarian cancer if it is detected at an early stage. But most cases are detected late. Can women rely on their bodies to tell them if they have this cancer?

Medically Reviewed On: July 21, 2012

Webcast Transcript

ANNOUNCER: Most women can remember the day they made the transition from childhood to womanhood. It was the time in their lives they first became acquainted with their ovaries.

CAROLYN RUNOWICZ, MD: The ovaries are small, usually almond-shaped organs, and they're part of the reproductive organs, which include the fallopian tubes, the uterus, the cervix, the vagina.

The ovaries make hormones, estrogen plus progesterone, and this starts at puberty, when a girl goes developing breasts, getting a period. Pregnancy is related to the hormones that are coming out of the ovaries as well as the egg that comes out of the ovaries.

ANNOUNCER: Despite women's familiarity with their ovaries' activity, ovarian cancer often goes unnoticed because it doesn't have obvious symptoms until it is in its advanced stages. Or does it?

CAROLYN RUNOWICZ, MD: Actually, I think we are now getting away from the concept of ovarian cancer as a silent killer. The current concept that has evolved with the patients who have survived ovarian cancer and have become a very vocal advocacy group have made it very clear that there are symptoms. The problem is that the symptoms don't point with a big red flag to the ovaries.

ANNOUNCER: Research is lending strong support to the notion that ovarian cancer is often preceded by a persistent cluster of vague, but recognizable, symptoms.

CAROLYN RUNOWICZ, MD: The symptoms can be very, very nonspecific. The back pain, lower abdominal pain, bloating, indigestion and so most of these symptoms in patients and in a doctor's eyes would point to the intestinal system. You would think you had reflux or GERD or constipation, and so it's a confusing picture. And so we don't have any specific symptoms to say to patients, "If you develop this, then you need to immediately be seen, because that's a symptom of early stage." So, unfortunately, most of the patients are diagnosed with advanced stage.

ANNOUNCER: The best case scenario would be the development of a screening test that detects ovarian cancer at an early, more curable, stage.

Some women may have heard of the CA125 blood test and transvaginal ultrasound, but doctors say that these tests are not reliable ways to detect ovarian cancer in most women.

CAROLYN RUNOWICZ, MD: There is no screening test for the average population, and I think that's very important. If every woman went out and got a CA125, we could basically diagnose ovarian cancer. However, 20 percent of tumors do not make CA125, so you'd pick up 80 percent, which would be okay. But, the problem is the CA125 is secreted by many organs and is an index of inflammation.

ANNOUNCER: So currently these screening tests are reserved for women who are at particularly high risk.

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