President's Prescription: A whispering killer

How well do you listen to your body? Subtle symptoms may occur that tip you off to a potential problem. Since the vast majority of women found to have ovarian cancer at an early stage can be treated very effectively, learn to listen to your body. It might be whispering that there's a problem.

Each year more than 20,000 women are afflicted with ovarian cancer, and it claims nearly 15,000 lives. Although it affects women of all ages and races, it occurs more commonly in white women over the age of 60.

Because the ovaries are located rather deep inside the pelvis, small tumors can grow undetected. By the time the cancer has grown to a detectable size, it is often late in the course of the disease, which is what makes it a "silent" killer. However, it may be that ovarian cancer is more "whispering" than "silent."

"Listening" for possible problems with your ovaries means learning to pay attention to some common, everyday symptoms, including:

Bloating. As fluid from an ovarian tumor starts to build, a woman might develop a sensation of abdominal bloating that she attributes to other things (what she's eaten, weight gain, etc.).

A sensation of fullness with food intake. There may be a sense of feeling full faster than usual with meals.

A sensation of urinary urgency. Some women sense that they must urinate frequently and that they can't "hold it" when the urge to urinate hits them.

Pressure or pain. A woman may feel a pressure in her pelvis or may develop discomfort in either her stomach or pelvis. This can be subtle, particularly at first.

Here's the problem -- the symptoms described above are usually due to other benign issues unrelated to a woman's ovaries. An unusual meal. A bladder infection. Pants that are too tight at the waist. These all might cause similar sensations. Nonetheless, unless a woman has previously had her ovaries removed, symptoms such as those described here should be evaluated by a doctor if they are unusual and persist for more than a few weeks.

Tell your doctor about any family history of ovarian cancer or any personal history of menstrual irregularities or pelvic surgery. While routine tests such as the Pap smear do not detect ovarian cancers, your doctor can perform more specialized studies to look into the problem. For the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, I'm Dr. Tedd Mitchell, and this is the President's Prescription.