June 23, 2008 -- A symptoms checklist, combined with a blood test, can catch 80% of ovarian cancer in its earliest, most curable stages, a new study suggests.
Doctors used to call ovarian cancer "the silent killer." That's because it was thought to have no symptoms until the very late stages of disease. But women who had or who survived ovarian cancer insisted that they knew something was wrong, long before doctors finally diagnosed their malignancy.
Finally, a doctor listened. University of Washington researcher Barbara Goff, MD, and colleagues analyzed patients complaints and, in a groundbreaking 2004 study, announced to the medical world that ovarian cancer is not silent.
In 2007, Goff, M. Robyn Andersen, PhD, of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and colleagues came up with a "symptom index" indicative of ovarian cancer. But this index caught only 57% of early-stage cancers.
Now the same researchers find that by adding a blood test for the CA125 ovarian-cancer biomarker -- which by itself misses about half of ovarian cancers -- the symptom index can catch more than four out of five early ovarian cancers.
"The symptom index and the CA125 test each finds 50% to 60% of women with early disease," Andersen tells WebMD. "But when they're combined, if either one is positive, we might be able to identify 80.6% of women with early stage ovarian cancer. Women with early stage disease have good chance of a cure -- it's just that right now, we don't find many of them in time."
The symptoms that warn of ovarian cancer aren't, in themselves, very specific. They may seem to be gastrointestinal or psychological rather than gynecological in nature.
"We hear all the time of women coming in with these symptoms and having them missed or dismissed by their doctors," Cara Tenenbaum, policy director for the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, tells WebMD. "They get sent to eating disorder clinics, or treated for irritable bowel syndrome or depression."
But the symptoms are real, says Robert A. Smith, PhD, director of cancer screening for the American Cancer Society. A study that looked at the health records of women later diagnosed with ovarian cancer found that prior to their diagnosis, they were much more likely than other women to complain of abdominal symptoms.