Identifying symptoms of ovarian cancer: a qualitative and quantitative study

BJOG. 2008 Jul;115(8):1008-14. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-0528.2008.01772.x.


Introduction: Symptoms of ovarian cancer are often vague and consequently a high proportion of women with ovarian cancer are not referred to the appropriate clinic.

Objective: To identify diagnostic factors for ovarian cancer.

Design: A qualitative and quantitative study.

Setting: Four UK hospitals.

Sample: One hundred and twenty-four women referred to hospital with suspected ovarian malignancy.

Methods: Women were interviewed prior to diagnosis (n = 63), or soon after. A thematic analysis was conducted. Emergent symptoms were quantitatively analysed to identify distinguishing features of ovarian cancer.

Main outcomes: Symptoms in women with and without ovarian cancer.

Results: Diagnoses comprised 44 malignancies, 59 benign gynaecological pathologies and 21 normal findings. Of the malignancies, 25 women had stage III or more disease, with an average age of 59 years. The benign/normal cohort was significantly younger (48 years). Multivariate analysis revealed persistent abdominal distension (OR 5.2, 95% CI 1.3-20.5), postmenopausal bleeding (OR 9.2, 95% CI 1.1-76.1), appetite loss (OR 3.2, 95% CI 1.1-9.2), early satiety (OR 5.0, 95% CI 1.6-15.7) and progressive symptoms (OR 3.6, 95% CI 1.3-9.8) as independent, statistically significant variables associated with ovarian cancer. Fluctuating distension was not associated with ovarian cancer (OR 0.4, 95% CI 0-4.1). Women frequently used the term bloating, but this represented two distinct events: persistent abdominal distension and fluctuating distension/discomfort.

Conclusions: Ovarian cancer is not a silent killer. Clinicians should distinguish between persistent and fluctuating distension. Recognition of the significance of symptoms described by women could lead to earlier and more appropriate referral.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Abdominal Pain / etiology
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Colonic Diseases / etiology
  • Early Diagnosis
  • Fatigue / etiology
  • Feeding and Eating Disorders / etiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Metrorrhagia / etiology
  • Middle Aged
  • Nausea / etiology
  • Ovarian Neoplasms / complications
  • Ovarian Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Urination Disorders / etiology
  • Vomiting / etiology