Consider Ovarian Cancer as a Differential Diagnosis

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This year in the United States, there were an estimated 22,530 new cases of ovarian cancer and an estimated 13,980 ovarian cancer deaths.1 Ovarian cancer accounts for more deaths than any other female reproductive system cancer.2 The high mortality rate is attributed to the advanced stage of cancer at initial presentation: Women diagnosed with localized disease have an estimated 5-year survival rate of 92%, while those diagnosed with advanced disease have a 5-year survival rate of 29%.3 For this reason, early detection of ovarian cancer is paramount.

A Personal Story

I think about ovarian cancer every day, because I am a survivor of this deadly disease. In 2018, at age 53, I received the diagnosis of stage 1A high-grade serous carcinoma of the left ovary. My cancer was discovered incidentally: I presented to my health care provider with a 6-month history of metrorrhagia and a prior history of regular menstruation with dysmenorrhea controlled with ibuprofen. My family and personal history of cancer was negative, I had a normal BMI, I didn’t smoke and consumed alcohol only moderately, my lifestyle was active, and I had no chronic diseases and used no medications regularly. My clinician performed a pelvic exam and ordered sexually transmitted infection testing and blood work (complete blood count, metabolic panel, and TSH). The differential diagnosis at this point included

  • Thyroid dysfunction
  • Perimenopause
  • Sexually transmitted infection
  • Coagulation defect
  • Foreign body
  • Infection.

All testing yielded normal findings. At my follow-up appointment, we discussed perimenopause symptoms and agreed that I would continue monitoring the bleeding. If at a later date I wanted to pursue an ultrasound, I was instructed to call the office. It was not suggested that I schedule a follow-up office visit.

Several months later, persistent metrorrhagia prompted me to request a transvaginal ultrasound (TVU)—resulting in the discovery of a left adnexal solid mass and probable endometrial polyp. A referral to a gynecologic oncologist resulted in further imaging, which confirmed the TVU results. Surgical intervention was recommended.

One week later, I underwent robotic-assisted total laparoscopic hysterectomy, bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy, left pelvic and periaortic lymph node dissection, and omentectomy. The pathology report confirmed stage 1A high-grade serous carcinoma of the left ovary, as well as stage 1A grade 1 endometrioid adenocarcinoma of the uterus. I required 6 cycles of chemotherapy before follow-up imaging yielded negative results, with no evidence of metastatic disease.

A Call to Action

The recently updated US Preventive Services Task Force guidelines continue not to recommend annual screening with TVU and/or cancer antigen 125 (CA-125) blood testing for ovarian cancer in asymptomatic, average-risk women. A review of the evidence found no mortality benefit and high false-positive rates, which led to unnecessary surgeries and physiologic stress due to excess cancer worry.4 This (lack of) recommendation leaves the clinician in the position of not performing or ordering screening tests, except in cases in which the patient presents with symptoms or requests screening for ovarian cancer.

Yet it cannot be overstated: The clinician’s role in identifying risk factors for and recognizing symptoms of ovarian cancer is extremely important in the absence of routine screening recommendations. Risk factors include a positive family history of gynecologic, breast, or colon cancers; genetic predisposition; personal history of breast cancer; use of menopausal hormone therapy; excess body weight; smoking; and sedentary lifestyle.3 In my case, my risk for ovarian cancer was average.

Continue to: With regard to symptoms...

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