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Ovarian cancer is often regarded as a silent killer. Because the ovaries are deep inside the abdominal cavity, tumors cause few symptoms before they have already begun to spread. There are reliable indicators, however, that women need to see doctors.

Every year, just in the United States, over 22,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Every year in the United States, over 15,000 women die of ovarian cancer, which is usually only diagnosed once it has begun to spread.

No Reliable Laboratory Tests for Ovarian Cancer

There aren't any easy and reliable medical tests for ovarian cancer. Blood work is never definitive. Tumors in the ovaries cause elevation of a protein in the blood called CA-125, but 50% of the time, they don't, and CA-125 is made by many different kinds of abdominal tumors in both men and women.

A positive test for this biomarker isn't necessarily a sure sign a woman has ovarian cancer, and not having a positive test for this biomarker isn't proof she doesn't.

Doctors may also order tests for human Chorionic gonadotropin (HCG), alpha-fetoprotein (AFP), and/or lactate dehydrogenase (LDH), but these are more useful for telling what kind of ovarian cancer is present, not whether or not it is present.

Ultrasound and Laparoscopic Procedures Not Reliable, Either

Transvaginal ultrasound, the insertion of a probe into the vagina, can detect unusual size and shape of the ovaries and Fallopian tubes. If ultrasound indicates tumor growth, then the doctor can order computed tomography (CT) or positron emission tomography (PET) to analyze the metabolic activity of the ovaries. Cancer cells tend to burn a great deal more sugar than healthy cells, and are sometimes detectible on these kinds of scans. When women are not well enough to have surgery, the physician may use a device called a laparoscope to perform laparoscopic surgery to use a needle to take a sample of suspected cancer for analysis under a microscope in the pathology lab. 

Definitive Test for Ovarian Cancer Is Biopsy

The only truly reliable diagnostic tool for ovarian cancer, however, is for a physician who is trained in both surgery and oncology to perform a biopsy.

This method is treatment and diagnosis in the same procedure.

The doctor goes in, removes the tumor, and then the pathologist finds out if the mass was malignant. This is the gold standard for diagnosis, but your primary care provider cannot perform it, and only 8% of women who are later found to have ovarian cancer actually get it because their cancers progress too far for surgical treatment before they are first seen by an oncologist. 

The Early Warning Signs of Ovarian Cancer

The early symptoms of ovarian cancer are also vague, but about 40% of women who have the disease present these three:

  • Increased abdominal girth, or bulging tummy, without gaining weight.
  • Problems with urination, dribbling, not feeling finished, not being able to control flow.
  • Feeling bloated all the time, often with acid reflux, gas, and loss of appetite, specifically from feeling full too quickly.

There are many, many conditions that can cause all three of these symptoms. Just having all three symptoms doesn't mean a woman has ovarian cancer. But they are a good reason to get a referral to a specialist. There are also telltale signs of ovarian cancer in natural approaches.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Goff BA, Mandel LS, Drescher CW, Urban N, Gough S, Schurman KM, et al. Development of an ovarian cancer symptom index: possibilities for earlier detection. Cancer. Jan 15 2007. 109(2):221-7. [Medline].
  • Ryerson AB, Eheman C, Burton J, McCall N, Blackman D, Subramanian S, et al. Symptoms, diagnoses, and time to key diagnostic procedures among older U.S. women with ovarian cancer. Obstet Gynecol. May 2007. 109(5):1053-61.
  • Photo courtesy of Francisco Osorio by Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/francisco_osorio/8228710532
  • Photo courtesy of Skånska Matupplevelser by Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/matupplevelser/4643772927

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