Ovarian cancer: Silent no more

New information about symptoms may assist crucial early detection.


Lynn Harris
June 13, 2007 7:26PM (UTC)

One of the scarier things about cancer in general -- and ovarian cancer, to name one of the deadliest -- is the notion that you may not be aware of it until it's very, very late. But today's New York Times reports that, contrary to previous understanding, ovarian cancer may indeed let us know it's there. "Cancer experts have identified a set of health problems that may be symptoms of ovarian cancer," says the article, "and they are urging women who have the symptoms for more than a few weeks to see their doctors." This new advice, which comes from the Gynecologic Cancer Foundation, the Society of Gynecologic Oncologists and the American Cancer Society, should be formally announced on June 25.

I'll tell you the symptoms only if you promise to read all the caveats that follow. Here they are: bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, "difficulty eating" (unclear whether this means painful swallowing, lack of appetite or what), feeling full quickly, and having a frequent or urgent need to urinate. But they don't "count" as symptoms if they're just in passing. Rather, you should call your gynecologist only if you have one or more of them every day for more than two or three weeks, especially if they're not normal for you to experience. (Period-related bloating? No. Easily upset tummy since childhood? Probably not that either.)

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More bigger-picture caveats. On the one hand, early detection means early diagnosis, which can save or prolong lives. On the other, there's always the concern about scaring people into unnecessary diagnostic tests or even surgery. Still, since there's some symptom overlap with conditions like urinary tract infections, it's pretty much always worth checking, no matter what you find by doing so.

And there's also the chance that this new information will help doctors be more vigilant. "There are so many horror stories of doctors who have told women to ignore these symptoms or have even belittled them on top of that," Dr. Debbie Saslow, director of the breast and gynecologic cancer division at the American Cancer Society, told the Times. The Times adds that in a survey of 1,700 women with ovarian cancer, 36 percent were initially diagnosed incorrectly with conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and, yes, depression. Twelve percent, noted one researcher, were told "it was all in their heads." At very least, women armed with this new information will perhaps be more inclined to seek a second opinion.


Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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