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
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
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
"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
So what are these warning signs? Andersen says there are three basic
Normal women experience all of these symptoms from time to time. But if any
of these symptoms started recently -- within the last year -- and if it's
struck nearly every day for several weeks, it may signal ovarian cancer.
Indeed, only 2% of women report recent, frequent onset of these symptoms.