Symptoms & Screening in Ovarian Cancer

Another Step toward beating ovarian cancer
Angeles Alvarez Secord, MD, MHS
     Angeles Alvarez Secord, MD, MHS


Unlike in breast cancer, there are no reliable screening tests or exams to detect ovarian cancer early in women of average risk with no symptoms. (There’s no mammogram equivalent.) Per the United States Preventive Services Taskforce (USPSTF), any benefit to screening these women for ovarian cancer with diagnostic tools are outweighed by the harms, including potential false-positive results as well as unnecessary testing and diagnostic surgery.

In studies where transvaginal ultrasound, a diagnostic tool, was used to screen for ovarian cancer, most of the masses turned out not to be cancer upon further examination. Research measuring the level of CA-125 (a protein) in the blood — albeit a valuable test for helping guide treatment in ovarian cancer patients — hasn’t yet been found to be an effective screening method for asymptomatic women either.

High CA-125 levels in the absence of other symptoms is more often indicative of common conditions such as endometriosis and pelvic inflammatory disease than a sign of the presence of cancer.

Further, there’s been no “adequate evidence” that

screening with ultrasounds or CA-125 tests reduce ovarian cancer mortality. [These screening tests may, however, be recommended for women who are at high risk for ovarian cancer, such as those with BRCA gene mutations. Doctors may also discuss preventive surgeries to remove the ovaries and Fallopian tubes for these patients.]

Gynecologic oncologist Angeles Alvarez Secord, MD, MHS, emphasizes that it’s important for women to be aware of the symptoms of ovarian cancer.

Secord advises that while these cancers frequently cause non-specific symptoms that can be hard to identify, women should seek prompt medical attention if any of these common symptoms (bloating; pelvic and/or abdominal pain; feeling full quickly, upset stomach, or trouble eating; having to urinate frequently; extreme tiredness; difficulty having bowel movements; and abdominal swelling) last more than a few weeks.

*This feature on symptoms and screening was originally published as a sidebar with this article on the DCI blog: UnTEAL There’s A Cure, Have Faith in the Fight