Contrary to popular belief the majority of women with ovarian cancer (dubbed the silent killer because it is often diagnosed when already too advanced for treatment) experience a clear pattern of symptoms according to a study released by the Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR).
In this large study of 800 women and published in Gynecologic Oncology, only 7% of women with early stage cancer did not present with any symptoms before diagnosis. This figure increased to 16% of women with borderline disease but fell to less than 4% for advanced disease.
“Basically we found that most women with ovarian cancer experienced some symptoms, most commonly abdominal swelling (with or without a detectable mass) and abdominal pain or pressure,” said QIMR’s Dr Penny Webb. “Although these symptoms are also not uncommon in the general population, they appear to occur 3 – 7 times more frequently in ovarian cancer patients”.
“It is also important to note that in most cases within the general population, these symptoms will not be anywhere near as severe as they are in ovarian cancer patients.”
“This clearly demonstrates that women who experience persistent or recurrent abdominal symptoms, particularly swelling or pain, should be encouraged to seek medical attention and physicians should be alert to the possibility of ovarian cancer even in the absence of an abdominal mass”.
A pelvic mass is often viewed by physicians as the major sign of ovarian cancer, but this is not a symptom commonly reported by women themselves.
Women with advanced disease were more likely to experience general abdominal swelling than those with early stage cancer while those with early stage cancers were most likely to experience urinary symptoms.
The study also found that overweight and obese women were less likely to notice unusual abdominal swelling than smaller women while women who had children were more likely to report unusual abdominal symptoms that women who had not had children.
QIMR is now conducting Australia’s largest study of ovarian cancer (the Australian Ovarian Cancer Study) where, amongst other things, scientists will examine symptoms experienced by about 2,000 women with ovarian cancer and 2,000 women without cancer from across the whole of Australia.
Ovarian cancer is the sixth most common cancer occurring in women and continues to be the leading cause of death among Australian women who develop a gynaecological malignancy. Approximately 1,200 new cases are diagnosed each year and some 700 women die annually (in Queensland more than 100 women die from ovarian cancer each year, with 200 to 300 new cases diagnosed annually).