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Ovarian cancer symptoms not the key

Ovarian cancer: reducing time from symptoms to diagnosis may not improve survival rates

A new study by the Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR) and National Breast and Ovarian Cancer Centre (NBOCC) has found that once women with ovarian cancer have experienced symptoms, reducing time to diagnosis does not improve outcomes.

Dr Penny Webb, Head of QIMR’s Gynaecological Cancers Laboratory, said, “It is widely assumed that if we could diagnose ovarian cancer more quickly, it would be detected at an earlier stage and survival rates would improve. However, our study of more than 1,400 Australian women diagnosed with ovarian cancer suggests that this may not be the case.”

“The results of this study suggest that once a woman experiences symptoms, the timing of the diagnosis does not alter the stage of the disease or lead to better survival.”

Women who participated in the Australian Ovarian Cancer Study were asked to report the events leading to their diagnosis of ovarian cancer, including the date they first experienced symptoms and when they went to a doctor.

“However, the results also raise the possibility that if ovarian cancers could be detected before they cause symptoms, then survival outcomes for women might be improved. This makes it even more important to continue our research and improve our understanding of the factors that play a role in the development of this disease,” said Dr Webb.

The symptoms of ovarian cancer include abdominal pain and bloating, changes in toilet habits, unexplained changes in weight and fatigue.

Dr Helen Zorbas, CEO NBOCC, said, “For those who do have ovarian cancer, seeing their doctor promptly will help ensure they are appropriately referred to a gynaecological oncologist and can then make informed choices about their treatment.”

“While most women who experience the symptoms of ovarian cancer won’t have the disease, it is important that women who experience persistent symptoms should visit their doctor.”
Dr Zorbas added that development of an effective early detection test for ovarian cancer remains a key priority for future research.

Ovarian cancer affects around 1,200 women in Australia each year. About two-thirds of women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed with advanced stage disease and overall survival is poor with only about 40% of women surviving more than five years.

The study will be published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. The paper is available online at

The AOCS study was conducted by QIMR in collaboration with the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and Westmead Millennium Institute.

The Australian Ovarian Cancer Study was supported by the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command under DAMD17-01-1-0729, the Cancer Councils of New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria, the Cancer Foundation of Western Australia and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) of Australia; the Australian Cancer Study was supported by the NHMRC. Christina Nagle and Penny Webb are supported by fellowships from the NHMRC.