The American Cancer Society predicts that in 2003, about 25,400 new cases of ovarian cancer will be diagnosed and 14,300 women will die of the disease. Among U.S. women, ovarian cancer is the seventh most common cancer and the fifth leading cause of cancer death after lung and bronchus, breast, colorectal, and pancreatic cancers. Ovarian cancer causes more deaths than any other type of gynecologic cancer and accounts for 5% of all cancer deaths among women.
Only about 25% of ovarian cancers are diagnosed at an early stage. Approximately 60% of cases are diagnosed after the cancer has spread, when the 5-year survival rate is close to 30%. The vast majority of cases are not diagnosed until the cancer has spread beyond the ovaries, often because symptoms are easily confused with other diseases and because no reliable, easily administered screening tool exists. However, several potential screening methods are being tested, including transvaginal ultrasound and the measurement of tumor markers such as CA 125.
Ovarian cancer is hard to find early. Often there are no symptoms in the early stages and, in many cases, the cancer has spread by the time it is found. The cancer may grow for some time before it causes pressure, pain, or other problems. Even when symptoms appear, they may be so vague that they are ignored.
As the tumor grows, the woman may feel swollen or bloated, or may have general discomfort in the lower abdomen. The disease can cause a loss of appetite or a feeling of fullness, even after a light meal. Other symptoms may include gas, indigestion, nausea, and weight loss. A large tumor can press on nearby organs, such as the bowel or bladder, causing diarrhea or constipation, or frequent urination. Less often, bleeding from the vagina is a symptom of ovarian cancer.
Ovarian cancer can cause swelling due to a buildup of fluid in the abdomen (ascites). Fluid can also collect around the lungs, causing shortness of breath.
These symptoms may be caused by cancer or by other, less serious conditions. If a woman is experiencing symptoms, she should consult a doctor.
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Portions of the above information has been provided with the kind permission of the Centers for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov).