Because symptoms of ovarian cancer are somewhat vague, the disease usually isn't diagnosed until it's advanced, making it too often deadly.
It would be great if there were a routine screening test for ovarian cancer, as mammograms are for breast cancer, and at one point doctors had high hopes for a blood test called the CA-125. The test looks for elevated levels of a substance called cancer antigen 125, which sometimes indicates that ovarian cancer is present.
However it's become clear that the CA-125 isn't a good screening test for the general population of women. A few weeks ago the US Preventative Services Task Force released a recommendation that symptom-free women do not receive routine screening, whether via a CA-125 test or an ultrasound, for ovarian cancer.
"There is no existing method of screening for ovarian cancer that is effective in reducing deaths," stated Task Force member and chair Virginia Moyer, M.D., M.P.H. in a statement. "In fact, a high percentage of women who undergo screening experience false-positive test results and consequently may be subjected to unnecessary harms, such as major surgery."
It's important to note that this recommendation doesn't apply if you have a family or personal history of ovarian or breast cancers, or a genetic mutation (such as the BRCA-1 or BRCA-2) that puts you at greater risk of ovarian cancer. If you fall into those categories, talk to your doctor about whether regular monitoring with CA-125 and/or ultrasound is right for you.
But if you don't fall into one of those high risk groups you might be wondering what this means for you—is there any way for you to catch ovarian cancer before it's too late? Researchers at Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center may have an answer: A simple three-question survey given to women in their primary care doctor's office actually provides a pretty good ovarian cancer screening, without the stressful false positives of blood tests and ultrasounds. The most effective survey asked women if they experienced one or more of these symptoms:
- Abdominal and/or pelvic pain
- Feeling full quickly and/or being unable to eat normally
- Abdominal bloating and/or increased abdomen size
The survey also asked women if the symptoms were frequent and relatively new: "Symptoms such as pelvic pain and abdominal bloating may be a sign of ovarian cancer but they also can be caused by other conditions. What's important is to determine whether they are current, of recent onset and occur frequently," said lead author M. Robyn Andersen, Ph.D., a member of the Hutchinson Center's Public Health Sciences Division, in a statement. "Women with symptoms that are frequent, continual and new to them in the past year should talk to their doctor, as they may be candidates for further evaluation with ultrasound and blood tests that measure markers of ovarian cancer such as CA-125," she said.
So if you experience these symptoms, definitely make an appointment with your doctor, but don't panic. According to the researchers, approximately one in 140 women with these symptoms has ovarian cancer, so there's still a good chance that you are one of the 139 who doesn't.
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