Bloating and abdominal pain are two very unspecific symptoms that happen to be the most common symptoms experienced by those with ovarian cancer. Unspecific symptoms like these contribute to why most patients are diagnosed at later stages when cancer has already spread.
Alicia Tone and her collaborators recently published the Canadian edition of The Every Women Study. This study aimed to explore what drove individuals to seek healthcare advice, what influenced diagnosis timelines, how care differed across Canada and to obtain the patient perspective on ovarian cancer diagnosis and treatment. I’ll use their results to illustrate the typical experience of ovarian cancer diagnosis to highlight why awareness and new screening tools are crucial.
In Canada, in the last few years (2016-2020), patients with ovarian cancer have been diagnosed more commonly at these late stages (2011-2015). Awareness is crucial. Of those with ovarian cancer symptoms, only 35 per cent had prior knowledge of ovarian cancer. Interestingly, Nova Scotia had the second lowest ovarian cancer symptom awareness (just 20 per cent).
Over 86 per cent of individuals with symptoms sought healthcare consultation, most within three months of their symptoms. Their symptoms, though, being unspecific, led to incorrect suspected diagnoses. Clinicians suspected ovarian cysts, urinary infection, menopause-related issues, or nothing. Only 11 per cent of clinicians accurately suspected cancer in those presenting with ovarian cancer symptoms. This is probably why most symptomatic individuals went on to consult one or more additional healthcare providers. Most Canadian patients are diagnosed within three months (59 per cent); however, for 14 per cent of patients with ovarian cancer, the diagnosis takes over one year – the remaining individuals (27 per cent) are diagnosed between three months and one year.
Unfortunately, we have no reliable or efficient screening. Currently, there is only one blood test, CA-125, that can be used to explore an ovarian cancer diagnosis but it must be combined with invasive pelvic exams and transvaginal ultrasounds for confirmation.
It’s clear that we need better diagnostic tools and improved clinical education on ovarian cancer. The quicker ovarian cancer symptoms (specifically the group of symptoms that typically present together) can be identified by healthcare professionals; the faster ovarian cancer can be diagnosed and treated.