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June 11, 2007

They Told me I was Pregnant, But it was Ovarian Cancer

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For years, women and their doctors have considered ovarian cancer a silent disease, showing no symptoms until the cancer is already advanced. By then, survival rates are disturbingly low: 20 percent for cancers found in stage III or later. But if the tumor is caught early, a woman’s chances of surviving the disease are 95 percent.

A study published last June in the Journal of the American Medical Association, sponsored by the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund, indicates that ovarian cancer often does have identifiable symptoms that arise more quickly and more frequently than anyone realized. In the study, 43 percent of the women with cancer had a combination of certain symptoms—severe bloating, increased abdominal size, and urinary urgency—that occurred approximately 20 to 30 times a month.

“Everyone has occasional bloating and abdominal pain, but when it occurs almost daily and isn’t tied to your period or the foods you eat, go to see your doctor,” says Barbara Goff, M.D., codirector of the division of gynecologic oncology at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

If you have these symptoms, ask your doctor to perform some or all of the following:

1. Pelvic exam Doctors will feel for a hard mass or other irregularity on your ovaries. This is the same manual exam you get when you go to the gynecologist (you should get one every year if you’re over 18).

2. Transvaginal ultrasound This test, done by inserting a probe into the vagina, is the primary tool used for diagnosis. The caveat: It can’t always distinguish between a cancerous and noncancerous tumor.

3. Surgery Sometimes, surgeons have to remove the tumor in order to examine its cells for cancer (removing the tissue with a needle could spread cancerous cells).

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