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Kelly Mellott

Ovarian Cancer Frequently Misdiagnosed

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The National Ovarian Cancer Coalition today announced the results of a nationwide survey of women battling ovarian cancer.  The survey, responded to by 250 women mostly between the ages of 40 and 65, found that more than two-thirds were initially misdiagnosed by their doctors. 


Survey findings revealed that doctors frequently dismissed the women’s complaints of abdominal or pelvic pain and bloating—the two most frequently cited symptoms of ovarian cancer—as either irritable bowel syndrome, a urinary tract infection, acid reflux, or stress. Nearly 70 percent of the respondents said their doctor never even mentioned the possibility of ovarian cancer.


As a result, approximately a third of the respondents waited more than two months between the initial doctor consultation and surgery, the survey found.


“Doctors need to listen to their patients and be more sensitive to the possibility of ovarian cancer,” says Deborah K. Armstrong, M.D., Associate Professor of Oncology, Gynecology & Obstetrics at Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center.  “Simple and inexpensive tests such as a pelvic exam, CA-125 and pelvic ultrasound are appropriate for women with symptoms that persist for more than three weeks.”  


The NOCC survey indicates that the public is still largely unfamiliar with ovarian cancer, which is the fifth leading cause of cancer-related death among women, and is the deadliest of all gynecologic cancers. Each year more than 21,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer and about 15,000 die of the disease.  Nearly 70 percent of the respondents said they “knew very little” about ovarian cancer before they were diagnosed and 11 percent said they had never even heard of the disease. 


“When I was diagnosed six years ago, I thought my life was over. I knew hardly anything about the disease and I sobbed uncontrollably,” said Joanne Nesbitt, an Avon representative in Connecticut.  “I thought that everyone dies from ovarian cancer. But I’ve learned a lot more since then.”


The lack of understanding about ovarian cancer may have also contributed to the  finding that more than one quarter of the respondents had surgery performed by a gynecologist rather than a gynecologic oncologist.  Numerous research studies have shown that surgery by a specially trained gynecologic oncologist is one of the leading factors in increasing ovarian cancer survival rates, as well as decreasing rates of recurrence. 


Overall, the women said they weren’t surprised about the lack of awareness surrounding the disease.  Asked if women who haven’t been diagnosed are more aware of ovarian cancer than women were five years ago, a resounding 55 percent said no.


“We have a long ways to go in terms of education and awareness” says Nesbitt. “But there are more and more of us committed to helping women learn about the disease and its early warning symptoms.” 

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