Ovarian cancer accounts for 4% of female cancers and there are over 200,000 new cases each year around the world. It is the most deadly of the gynecological cancers, with overall five year survival of only 35%.
Because the symptoms of early ovarian cancer are common to many other conditions and often vague and hard to describe, it can take a long time to get a proper diagnosis. For this reason, ovarian cancer is sometimes known as the ‘silent killer’. In a study, doctors at the University of Bristol, UK, argue that ovarian cancer is not really silent – rather, its sounds are not being heard. By this, they mean that one symptom, in particular, is being overlooked.
They studied the presenting symptoms of 212 women with ovarian cancer taken from general practice database in Devon, England. From the analysis, it emerged that abdominal distension is a significant symptom that warrants further investigation, particularly if present with other symptoms like urinary frequency. The problem is that abdominal distension is often described by the patient as ‘bloating’. But bloating is a vague term – sometimes it means gastrointestinal discomfort associated with problems like irritable bowel syndrome where abdominal girth will increase, but then subside.
More sinister is abdominal distension that does not come and go, but is progressive. When this is present it may indicate ovarian cancer and should not be dismissed as a digestive problem. The constellation of symptoms that may give warning of ovarian cancer is: abdominal distension, urinary frequency, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, fatigue and postmenopausal bleeding. The last one will – or should – always prompt the doctor to instigate further investigation. The other symptoms are so common that they could be overlooked or misdiagnosed. The researchers say that if a woman complains of bloating, its exact nature should be investigated, in case it means ovarian cancer which, caught early enough, could be cured.