Medical Technology

Common Symptoms in High-Risk, Early-Stage Ovarian Cancer

A new study offers fresh insight into early indications of high-risk, early-stage, epithelial ovarian cancer: More than 70% have at least one symptom such as abdominal/pelvic pain or increased girth/fullness, and women with larger tumors have more symptoms.

“Even in early-stage disease, ovarian cancer is not necessarily a silent disease,” said lead author and gynecologic oncologist/surgeon John K. Chan, MD, of Palo Alto Medical Foundation/California Pacific/Sutter Research Institute.

The study appeared Jan. 6, 2021, in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology.

According to Chan, most previous studies of symptoms in ovarian cancer have focused on those with advanced disease since that’s when it’s typically diagnosed. “Given these gaps in knowledge from prior reports, we performed this analysis to evaluate the presentation and characteristic symptoms of early-stage ovarian cancer and to attempt to identify the relationship between these symptoms with respect to clinicopathologic characteristics and prognosis in early-stage disease.”

Chan and colleagues retrospectively tracked 419 patients who were subjects in a clinical trial of chemotherapy doses. The patients all had high-risk, early-stage epithelial ovarian cancer (stage IA-IB and grade 3, any clear cell, stage IC or II).

Of the patients, 40% presented with one symptom, while 32% had multiple symptoms. The other 28% had no symptoms, and their masses were diagnosed upon discovery during physical examination. “Other investigators have found that nearly 95% of patients with ovarian cancer were symptomatic,” Chan said. “The lower percentage of symptomatic patients in our study may be because all 419 patients had early-stage disease as opposed to advanced-stage disease.”

The most common symptoms were abdominal or pelvic pain (31%; 95% confidence interval, 27%-36%), fullness or increased abdominal girth (27%; 95% CI, 22%-31%), abnormal vaginal bleeding (13%; 95% CI, 10%-17%), urinary problems (10%; 95% CI, 8%-14%), and gastrointestinal problems (6%; 95% CI, 4%-8%).

There was no statistically significant link between number of symptoms and age (younger than 60 or 60 or older), cancer stage, or histologic subtype. However, patients with the largest tumors (>15 cm) were more likely to have multiple symptoms than those with the smallest tumors (10 cm or smaller): 46% vs. 21% (P < .001).

Also, 79% of those with the largest tumors (>15 cm) had at least one symptom, compared with 65% of those with the smallest tumors (10 cm or smaller, P < .001)

Unlike other studies, this report didn’t find a link between the number of symptoms and mortality. This finding surprised the researchers, Chan said, as did the lack of connections between symptoms and age, stage, or histologic subtype. “We were expecting that the younger patients may have more symptoms given the association with endometriosis and clear cell cancers,” he said. “We also thought that those who are less symptomatic may have more stage I and low-grade indolent tumors with better survival, but we did not find that.”

The researchers noted limitations such as the lack of standardization in the patient data.

In the big picture, Chan said, “patients and health care professionals need to have a higher index of suspicion in symptomatic ovarian cancer patients to increase early detection and potentially improve cures. Ovarian cancer does not always kill. In fact, up to 80% of our early-stage disease patients are cured.”

He called for “additional research to evaluate symptom awareness in early-stage cancers and possibly incorporating novel serum biomarkers and wearable monitoring devices. Wearables may be able to assess for frequency or duration of symptoms, which may be an important factor in distinguishing symptoms that are more concerning for ovarian cancer.”

In an adjoining commentary, Barbara A. Goff, MD, chair of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Washington, Seattle, noted that, while ovarian cancers diagnosed early have a high survival rate, prospective randomized trials of transvaginal ultrasonography and tumor marker screening strategies have failed to reduce mortality. There’s currently no recommended screening test for women at average risk.

There are other challenges, she wrote. For one, “many health care professionals are seemingly unaware of the symptoms typically associated with ovarian cancer, so misdiagnosis remains common.” And “one of the concerns about the symptoms of ovarian cancer is that they can be vague and commonly present in the general population.”

Goff praised the study, called for more education about the symptoms of ovarian cancer, and wrote that “symptom recognition with appropriate diagnostic testing remains very important in our efforts to improve outcomes.”

The National Institutes of Health funded the study. Several study authors, including Chan, reported various disclosures.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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