Ovarian cancer has long been dubbed a silent killer because it's often not diagnosed until it's too late. But a Montreal gynecologic oncologist is working on a better testing method for the cancer and is encouraging women and their doctors not to ignore the early symptoms.

About 2,500 Canadian women will develop ovarian cancer this year -- a relatively low number when compared to the 23,000 women who will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year.

But in about 80 per cent of ovarian cancer cases, the diagnosis comes when the cancer has already advanced to an incurable stage.

The key reason for ovarian cancer's high mortality rate is that it's notoriously difficult to detect. Symptoms can include:

  • bloating
  • pelvic or abdominal pain
  • frequent urination
  • difficulty eating or feeling full quickly

But because many of these symptoms are vague, they're often mistaken for something else, so many cases are ignored for too long.

Oncologist Lucy Gilbert, head of the McGill University Health Centre's gynecological division is working with a team to develop a testing method that detects the cancer in its earliest stage.

She and her team recently published a study in the journal, Lancet Oncology, about a project they launched in Montreal called DOvE (Detecting Ovarian Cancer Earlier). The program offers a fast-track testing program to all older women age 50 and over with vague symptoms, such as bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain.

Women don't need a referral to visit the clinics and results can come back in as little as three weeks.

The programs assessed 1,455 women over three years and found 239 who needed further testing. Of them, 22 were later diagnosed with a gynecological cancer, including 11 with invasive ovarian cancers.

On Thursday, Gilbert and her team announced the creation of 12 new DOvE clinics that will open in the Montreal area in April.

Gilbert is encouraging women who have some of the symptoms of ovarian cancer to go for testing.

Carol Prigioniero is glad she went for testing. She had been complaining for weeks about abdominal pain but couldn't get answers from her doctors.

"When I was talking about these symptoms with my GP, gynecologists, they were just brushing me off. ‘Oh, it's nothing, don't think about it. It's your (uterine) fibroids, they're growing they will shrink, don't worry about it'," she remembers being told.

When her GP gave her the number for the DOvE program, she went for testing. She was then diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

She underwent treatment and is still recovering but her last CT scan showed she is now cancer-free.

Prigioniero says she owes her life to the DOvE research team. And she says women with similar symptoms should not give up pushing for testing if they suspect something is wrong.

"I knew my body. You have to listen to your body. Your body is telling you something, something is wrong," she says.

Gilbert is also campaigning to change the name of ovarian cancer to "pelvic cancer."

Research over the last decade has shown that most cases of ovarian cancer don't actually begin in the ovaries at all, but in the fallopian tubes. Pre-cancerous cells grow in the tubes and then shed over the surface of the ovaries, where they cause tumours.

By the time the cancer is found in the ovaries, it's already advanced. She says the focus should be on finding the cancer in its earliest stage in the tubes.

"We, for so many years, [kept] looking at the wrong place," she told reporters Thursday.

"Put bluntly, we had the name wrong, the staging wrong, and the diagnostic testing wrong. It is no wonder we have lost so many lives to this disease."

With a report from CTV's Genevieve Beauchemin