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Ovarian Cancer: Early Diagnosis Poses Challenges

Beth Bennett, 54, suffered worsening symptoms of ovarian cancer for four months before her diagnosis.
Richard Knox, NPR
Beth Bennett, 54, suffered worsening symptoms of ovarian cancer for four months before her diagnosis.

Mrs. J.L., who works as a lunch lady in a Massachusetts school, is one of 23,000 American women who will get a dreaded diagnosis this year: ovarian cancer.

It's the deadliest female malignancy.

Last week Mrs. J.L. (her initials are used to protect her privacy) was in an operating room at Massachusetts General Hospital while surgeons huddled over her abdomen, searching with their eyes and their fingers for tumors.

Surgeon Linda Duska says Mrs. J.L.'s cancer was widespread by the time doctors diagnosed it.

"When we first looked at her she had tiny spots, two or three millimeters of cancer, all through her entire abdomen," Duska says. "And there were also bigger spots of cancer on her bladder, on her colon, behind her uterus."

Unfortunately, this is typical. Eight out of 10 women with ovarian cancer have a widespread disease, called Stage III or IV. Their chances of cure are low.

The Silent Killer

For years, ovarian cancer was called a "silent" killer — causing no symptoms until it was too late to be cured. There's no good screening test for ovarian cancer, like a Pap smear for cervical cancer or colonoscopy for colorectal cancer.

But in recent years, data from Dr. Barbara Goff at the University of Washington and other researchers have challenged the notion that early stages of ovarian cancer give no warning. Interviewing women after their diagnosis and comparing them with similar women without ovarian cancer, the researchers found the cancer patients often had suffered symptoms. But they weren't recognized as signaling possible ovarian cancer.

That's because the symptoms are common and unspecific — and they can point to a wide variety of underlying causes.

The Warning Symptoms

The most prominent warning symptoms for ovarian cancer Goff and her colleagues found are: bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain; difficulty eating or feeling full quickly; and a frequent or urgent need to urinate.

The key indicator, they say, is if such symptoms — alone or together — come out of the blue and persist, occurring almost daily for more than two or three weeks.

This summer, the Gynecologic Cancer Foundation and 19 other groups concerned with women's health put out a consensus statement urging women and their doctors to pay serious attention to these early symptoms of what might be ovarian cancer.

Duska says the symptoms are often ignored or misinterpreted — while the cancer grows.

"We all have stories of months and months of (women) being worked up ... colonoscopy and all sorts of other tests, before somebody figured out what was going on," she says.

A Late Diagnosis

Beth Bennett, a 54-year-old New Hampshire woman, says this was her story. She was finally diagnosed with ovarian cancer at 9:30 a.m. on July 15, 2005 — the time and date are seared into her memory.

"It started very slowly, where I would just have these twinge of cramps, which I didn't think too much about," Bennett says. "But I had just had my annual checkup with my gynecologist, so I called. And they really didn't think it was anything."

That was in April 2005. After that, the symptoms piled up while Bennett's doctors scratched their heads — even after an ultrasound test showed a mass the size of an orange on her left ovary. Her gynecologist thought it was a benign cyst.

It took four months before her ovarian cancer was recognized for what it was — and the diagnosis came only after she started hemorrhaging badly.

Bennett says she hears this story from many women she has met since.

"I have this whole group of friends now who have ovarian cancer," she says as she waits to discuss a new chemotherapy regimen with her doctors. "They all tell me the same thing — that they had no idea. Not a clue! Every one of them was diagnosed late."

Duska says women who think they're having signs of possible ovarian cancer need to be as persistent as their symptoms.

"They really need to push their physicians ... to get to the next step," Duska says. "A lot of them have told me, 'I've had to go back to my doctor multiple times and say something is really wrong with me and you need to figure it out.'"

The American Cancer Society agrees. It signed on to the new guidelines — but with reservations.

Concerns About New Guidelines

Dr. Debbie Saslow, who heads breast and gynecological cancer programs for the cancer society, says the group is worried that many women with common symptoms — most of which will not turn out to be ovarian cancer — might be unduly alarmed by the new consensus statement. There's anecdotal evidence that this may be happening.

"Unfortunately, as we had feared, there have been women who have seen media coverage of this statement and have run to their doctors because they feel bloated or they feel some pain," Saslow says.

She adds that some women have "been very insistent about getting tests, such as CA-125, that are inaccurate." CA-125 is a blood test that can indicate ovarian cancer. But it's often a false alarm.

Ultrasounds can help rule out ovarian cancer. But, as Beth Bennett's experience shows, they can be misleading too. The only sure diagnosis is by exploratory surgery called a laparoscopy. The American Cancer Society is concerned about unnecessary laparoscopies, but Saslow says, on balance, this concern was outweighed by the hope that more women will get life-saving early diagnoses.

"The alternative," Saslow says, "is to not say anything and to continue having women who then later get ovarian cancer say, 'Why didn't anyone tell me about these symptoms?' or 'I did tell my doctor and he or she told me not to worry about that.'"

Duska, the Boston surgeon, has seen no sign that women are overreacting. But she acknowledges that it could be years before we know if the guidelines will make ovarian cancer as curable as breast cancer usually is now.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Since he joined NPR in 2000, Knox has covered a broad range of issues and events in public health, medicine, and science. His reports can be heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Talk of the Nation, and newscasts.