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Ovarian Cancer

Why Ovarian Cancer Is Called "The Silent Killer"


Updated June 02, 2014

Ovarian cancer is often called the "silent" killer because many times there are no symptoms until the disease has progressed to an advanced stage. One-third of American women will get some form of cancer in their lifetime and approximately one and one half percent of those cases will be cancer involving one or both ovaries.

Early symptoms of ovarian cancer are often mild, making this disease difficult to detect. Some early symptoms may include:

  • An unusual feeling of fullness or discomfort in the pelvic region
  • Unexplainable indigestion, gas, or bloating that is not relieved with over-the-counter antacids
  • Pain during sexual intercourse
  • Abnormal bleeding
  • Swelling and pain of the abdomen

Most often these symptoms do not indicate ovarian cancer. However, if you experience them you should discuss them with your clinician.

Early detection of ovarian cancer offers a 90% cure rate. Sadly, a lack of symptoms from this silent disease means that about 75% of ovarian cancer cases will have spread to the abdomen by the time they are detected and, unfortunately, most patients die within five years.


Symptomless ovarian cancer is most often detected during a woman's regular gynecological examination. Your physician will palpitate your ovaries during your pelvic and rectal exam for the presence of ovarian cysts or fibroid tumors. If any abnormalities are noted, he will follow up with further testing which may include an ultrasound and chest X-ray. If further testing is required, a laparoscopy may be performed.

New methods for early screening of ovarian cancer are being investigated including ultrasound in conjunction with a blood test. The blood test may detect a cancer protein called CA 125, which is sometimes detected in the blood of women with ovarian cancer.

These tests are useful in evaluating tumor growth, however neither of them has been proven as a reliable way to screen for ovarian cancer. Ultrasound can detect changes, but it does not give enough information alone to diagnose ovarian cancer. The CA 125 blood test can return positive results when no cancer is present due to other conditions a woman may experience including fibroid tumors, endometriosis, pelvic infection, pregnancy, or other non-gynecological problems.

Although these methods of screening for ovarian cancer look promising, further study is needed before either of these tests are routinely used to screen for ovarian cancer.

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