Can we recognize the symptoms of ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer is often called the “silent killer” because its symptoms only become apparent when the disease has reached a very advanced stage. When detected early, like in stage 1 for example, ovarian cancer is curable in 90% of cases. However, because 80% of ovarian cancer cases are only detected at a more advanced stage, the prognosis is often quite bleak.

Ovarian cancer is often called the “silent killer” because its symptoms only become apparent when the disease has reached a very advanced stage. When detected early, like in stage 1 for example, ovarian cancer is curable in 90% of cases. However, because 80% of ovarian cancer cases are only detected at a more advanced stage, the prognosis is often quite bleak.

Three American organizations - the Gynecologic Cancer Foundation, the Society of Gynecologic Oncologists and the American Cancer Society - recently published guidelines in which they define what they believe to be symptoms of ovarian cancer. According to them, healthy women who suddenly develop the following symptoms that last more than a few weeks should consult their physician or gynaecologist:

· Bloating; · Pelvic or abdominal pain; · Feeling full quickly or difficulty eating; · Frequent or urgent urination

These symptoms are not terribly specific and could be attributed to many other health problems. Nevertheless, according to the three organizations, in a healthy woman, their sudden onset and persistence over a few weeks should justify a visit to her physician or gynaecologist.

However, because of the non-specific nature of the symptoms, many experts actually doubt the usefulness of the new guidelines. Some even worry that women who report them could be made to undergo needless biopsies and other exams, causing them more harm than good.

In spite of the controversy, the authors of the new guidelines decided to go ahead with their publication. According to them, new studies have confirmed that the sudden onset of these symptoms in a healthy woman could be an important predictive factor of ovarian cancer.

Although the causes of ovarian cancer are still unidentified, we know it is more common in women aged 50 and over, women who have a family history of ovarian cancer or breast cancer, and those who have taken hormone replacement therapy (HRT) during menopause. In Canada, the risk a woman has of suffering from ovarian cancer is 1 in 69. In Canada alone, it is estimated that 2,400 new cases will be diagnosed in 2007, and that 1,700 women will perish from the disease.

It is a well known fact that early detection is crucial in increasing cancer survival rate, but even more so with a “silent killer” like ovarian cancer. Without becoming obsessed, women must pay attention to changes in their body. The onset of unusual symptoms certainly justifies seeing a physician or gynaecologist, even if they turn out to be of no real consequence. Better safe than sorry!

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