Diagnosis & Detection
Ovarian cancer has been called the “silent killer” because early symptoms are so vague and non-specific that ovarian cancer was usually advanced before it was properly diagnosed. Several large studies are currently underway to learn the best ways to find ovarian cancer in its earliest stage. Today, only about 20 percent of ovarian cancers are found at an early stage.
Regular health exam
Annual pelvic exams can be useful in helping to find some reproductive system cancers at an early stage, but most ovarian tumors are difficult or impossible for even the most skilled examiner to feel. The Pap test is effective in early detection of cervical cancer, but it isn’t a test for ovarian cancer.
A physical exam and health history are the first steps that will be taken by your physician to diagnose ovarian cancer. During the physical exam, your physician will be looking for signs of ovarian cancer such as an enlarged ovary and signs of fluid in the abdomen. Based on those findings, additional testing may be required. You will want to have this follow up performed by a gynecologic oncologist, an obstetrician/gynecologist who is specially trained in treating cancers of the female reproductive system. Treatment by a gynecologic oncologist has been shown to help patients with ovarian cancer live longer. Anyone suspected of having ovarian cancer should see this type of specialist prior to surgery.
When a situation is suspect and requires further testing, imaging becomes an important component to diagnose ovarian cancer and to evaluate the extent of the disease. These studies cannot confirm that a mass, if found, is cancer, but they may be useful in assessing the spread of ovarian cancer to other tissues and organs.
Ultrasound – uses sound waves to create an image on a video screen. This is often the first test done if a a problem with the ovaries is suspected. Ultrasound can be useful in finding an ovarian tumor and seeing if it is a solid mass (tumor) or fluid-filled cyst.
Computed tomography (CT) scans – offer great clarity and can show various types of tissue, including blood vessels. CT not only confirms the presence of a tumor but can show its precise location, size and involvement with adjacent tissues.
Positron emission tomography (PET) scan – is used to view biomedical changes in the body and can be helpful in spotting small collections of cancer cells. In some instances this test has proved helpful in finding ovarian cancer that has spread.
Signs and symptoms
Because the ovaries are so small and tucked within the pelvis, early symptoms of ovarian cancer occur in the abdominal area, leading many general physicians to initially suspect a gastrointestinal or bladder ailment. Women are more likely to have symptoms if the disease has spread beyond the ovaries, but even early stage ovarian cancer can cause them. The most common symptoms include:
Pelvic or abdominal pain
Trouble eating or feeling full after only a few bites
Urinary symptoms such as urgency (always feeling like you have to go) or frequency (having to go often)
Change in bowel habits, especially constipation.
When these symptoms are caused by ovarian cancer they tend to be persistent and represent a change from normal – for example, they may occur more often or are more severe. If you have these symptoms almost daily for more than a few weeks, you should see your doctor, preferably a gynecologist.
Let a physician referral specialist help you find a physician.