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Ovarian Cancer: Take Symptoms Seriously

Doctors, Patients Should Discuss, Investigate Vague Symptoms

Frustrating, Deadly Disease continued...

Of the 1,709 women in the study -- all patients at two primary care centers -- 128 were diagnosed with either a benign or malignant pelvic tumor. All the women completed surveys asking about a list of symptoms.

Mandel found this pattern among women diagnosed with ovarian cancer:

  • They were more likely to be postmenopausal, average age of 55.
  • 94% had symptoms during the past year; 67% had recurring symptoms.
  • They experienced their symptoms 15 to 30 times per month -- just about every day.
  • Symptoms had become severe in the past two or three months.

Compared with women without cancer, those with ovarian cancer were also:

  • Seven times more likely to have increased abdominal size
  • Four times more likely to have bloating
  • Two-and-a-half times more likely to have increased urgency to urinate
  • Twice as likely to have pelvic and abdominal pain

The symptom cluster of bloating, increased abdominal size, and urinary symptoms was found in 43% of women with cancer, Mandel reports. Only 8% of the other women had this pattern. This underscores the importance of coexisting symptoms.

"Younger women reported more symptoms," she tells WebMD. "Postmenopausal women didn't have any symptoms, except for urinary symptoms."

Her findings underscore the fact that these symptoms do exist, says Mandel. "It reinforces the ongoing need for communication between women and a health professional -- whether they go to a doctor, a nurse practitioner, a nurse. If anything is different from your normal, you need to be seeing a doctor. If you're not satisfied with the response you get -- if your symptoms don't resolve, if you're told it's in your head, insist that your doctor find out what it is."

Mandel's questionnaire is being used by Pacific Ovarian Cancer Research Consortium in a much larger study, she says. Those researchers are collecting tissue and blood from women, in addition to symptom information, to look for other patterns and markers for ovarian cancer -- including genetic markers. The questionnaire is available at http://depts.washington.edu/ovarian/questionnaire.html.

Other research groups are investigating blood proteins that may be markers of certain cancers. The marker could provide an accurate means to test for early-stage ovarian cancer, Horowitz tells WebMD.

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