Ovarian Cancer: "Silent Killer" No More?

Ovarian cancer patient
It's been called the silent killer because it's so hard to detect until it's too late.

More than 22,000 American women will be diagnosed this year with ovarian cancer. More than 15,000 are expected to die.

Most die within five years of their diagnosis — because by the time doctors find the disease, it has already spread. Until now, doctors have said there were no warning signs. But now they're compiled a list of symptoms that could point to ovarian cancer — in time to catch it, CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric reports.

Forty-nine-year-old Janet Weinrib was diagnosed with ovarian cancer two years ago.

"Something was sticking out of my stomach," she said. "I mean, there was a pronounced bulge in my lower abdomen."

But in retrospect, there were signs of her cancer almost two months earlier.

"The feeling of being, I would say, bloated, would be the best description," she said.

According to new guidelines issued today, that's just one of the four common symptoms of early ovarian cancer. In addition to bloating, other symptoms include feeling full quickly, abdominal pain and frequent or urgent urination.

"We don't want to frighten everyone into having everyone think 'Oh my gosh I have ovarian cancer, because I have bloating,' said Dr. Barbara Goff of the University of Washington. "Most people will not. But symptoms that are concerning are symptoms that are new for a patient, that persist for several weeks and that occur almost daily."

Ovarian cancer, if detected early — is 90 percent curable. But only 19 percent of cases are discovered in the earliest stage.

"Ovarian cancer can grow very rapidly, so time is of the essence," said Dr. Carol Brown, an oncologist and surgeon at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

Couric asked Brown why if there's a PSA test for prostate cancer, mammograms for breast cancer and colonoscopies for colon cancer, why isn't there some kind of diagnostic test for ovarian cancer?

"The reason is partially because the ovaries are deep inside the body," she said. "So we're really relying on two modalities — one is imaging studies like X-rays and new types of X-rays, and then the other are blood tests to look for different substances that ovarian cancers may be shedding into the blood."

In the meantime, Brown says women must listen carefully to their bodies — and doctors must listen carefully to their patients.

"Part of the importance of this study is to let doctors know, too, that these symptoms exist," Brown said. "So it can really trigger in their minds, when they're seeing women like this, to think about this as a possibility."