When detected early, oncologists can treat most cancers successfully and patients generally have a good long-term prognosis. However, women do not usually learn they have ovarian cancer until it has reached stage III or IV and treatment is often ineffective.

You may have heard physicians call ovarian cancer the silent killer because of its vague, non-specific symptoms, which make it difficult to diagnose.

Target Ovarian Cancer, an advocacy group in the United Kingdom, recently developed an online tool designed to help general practitioners (GP) recognize the subtle symptoms that may suggest ovarian cancer. The group developed this tool after a study found almost all GPs believe ovarian cancer is a silent killer; however, 98 percent of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer did show symptoms prior to their diagnosis.

On the surface, this tool sounds like it might help save women's lives.

The National Cancer Institute conducted an extensive, long-term study called the "Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian Cancer Screening Randomized Control Trial." The purpose of the study was to determine how beneficial screening is in reducing deaths from these types of cancers. The outcome for ovarian cancer may surprise you.

To evaluate the effectiveness of ovarian cancer screening, the researchers equally divided about 70,000 healthy women into two groups. One group agreed to yearly screening for ovarian cancer with blood tests and ultrasound; the other group did not undergo screening.

Of the women who were screened, 212 were diagnosed with ovarian cancer and 118 died. In the group of women who were not screened, 176 women were diagnosed and 100 died. Furthermore, in the group that was screened, 3,000 women had false positives (results indicated they had cancer although no cancer was present). One third of these women (1,000) had unnecessary surgery, which led to 163 serious complications.

The researchers who conducted the NCI study don't recommend ovarian cancer screening for women who are not at high risk. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, an independent panel of physicians and scientists, also recommends against general ovarian cancer screening.

Women should still be aware of the most common symptoms of ovarian cancer, which include:

  • Persistent abdominal swelling
  • Abdominal pain
  • Difficulty eating or feeling full

These symptoms may also apply to other conditions, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (the most common misdiagnosis of ovarian cancer); however, women should see their physician if the symptoms persist over time.

Target Ovarian Cancer. "News from Target Ovarian Cancer." Web. 25 February 2010.

Medical News Today. "Award-winning Free CPD Tool Now Updated To Help GPs Get Up To Speed With New NICE Guidance On Diagnosing And Treating Ovarian Cancer." Web. 17 May 2011.

"Effect of Screening on Ovarian Cancer Mortality." JAMA 305 (22) (2011): 2295. Web. 8 June 2011.

Pittman, Genevra. "Ovarian cancer screening doesn't save lives: study." Reuters. Web. 7 June 2011.

National Cancer Institute. "Ovarian Cancer Screening (PDQ®)." Web. 30 July 2010.