Detect ovarian cancer early by looking out for these symptoms
Among female genital tract cancers, ovarian cancer is the most difficult to prevent and cure. Located deep in the lower abdomen, a cancerous tumour arising from the ovaries can often grow undetected until it has spread to other organs. While the routine Pap smear may be an effective early screening tool for cervical cancer, there is no equivalent effective screening tests for ovarian cancer.
Ovarian cancers are hard to notice particularly when in the early stages because the usual few warning signs tend to be vague and can often be mistaken for other more common health issues. These include:
- Constant discomfort, or a feeling of “pressure’” in the lower abdomen (pelvic area).
- Persistent bloating or “wind”.
- Swelling of the abdomen (when fluid accumulates due to the growth and spread of cancerous cells inside the abdomen).
- Loss of appetite, difficulty in eating and feeling full quickly.
- Change in bowel habits (constipation or diarrhoea).
- Increased urinary frequency.
Should you experience any of these symptoms, you should consult your general practitioner, or go straight to your gynaecologist for further investigation.
Diagnostic testing for ovarian cancer generally involves a medical examination and an ultrasound pelvic scan to detect any ovarian abnormality. A blood test may also be conducted to assess levels of the cancer marker protein CA-125, which can be high in women with ovarian cancer.
Your doctor may specify further tests such as –
- CT or MRI scans of the lower abdomen to inspect internal organ structure
- Chest X-ray to determine any spread of the disease to your lungs
- Blood tests to evaluate your overall health and condition of the liver or kidneys
- Tests to investigate symptoms of constipation or urinary frequency
- Biopsy to obtain a small sample of fluid from a swollen abdomen for analysis at the laboratory
These clinical methods may help identify the presence of ovarian cancer, but surgery will be required to ascertain the full extent of the disease and reach a definitive diagnosis. Unfortunately, more than 50% of ovarian cancers are found in the advanced stages, when more extensive operation is likely needed for treatment.
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Hence, early diagnosis and intervention can considerably improve success of long-term survival. It is crucial to stay vigilant and consult your doctor in a timely manner if you experience any suspicious or unexplained anomalies.
This article has been fact-checked by Dr Timothy Lim, specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology at Timothy Lim Clinic for Women & Cancer Surgery, Mount Alvernia Hospital.