Ovarian Cancer Screening: What You Need to Know

July 11, 2024

Ovarian Cancer Screening: What You Need to Know

Ovarian cancer affects thousands of women worldwide, and understanding the role of ovarian cancer screening is crucial as we work to improve outcomes for those affected by this disease. 

Here’s the frustrating truth: screening for ovarian cancer is like searching for a needle in a haystack, with potentially life-altering consequences. In this article, we’re cutting through the confusion to explain why current screening methods fall short, what options exist, and why finding a better solution isn’t just important — it’s urgent. Whether you’re concerned about your own health or want to understand why research funding is so critical, buckle up. We’re about to get real about the challenges of ovarian cancer screening and why overcoming them could save countless lives.

Introduction to Ovarian Cancer Screening

Ovarian cancer screening aims to detect the disease before it causes symptoms, potentially allowing for earlier intervention and improved survival rates. 

While the concept is promising, the reality of ovarian cancer screening is complex. Despite advancements in cancer detection and treatment, finding ovarian cancer early remains challenging. However, women can still take important steps to protect their health.

Can Ovarian Cancer Be Found Early?

One of the primary challenges with ovarian cancer is its tendency to develop without causing noticeable symptoms in its early stages. When symptoms do appear, they can often be mistaken for more common, less serious conditions. This subtle onset makes early detection difficult for both patients and healthcare providers.

Currently, only about 20% of ovarian cancers are discovered in their early stages. While this statistic may seem discouraging, ongoing research supported by organizations like Not These Ovaries aims to improve early detection rates.

How is Ovarian Cancer Screened?

Several methods are used in screening for ovarian cancer, particularly for high-risk individuals. While none of these methods are definitive on their own, they can provide valuable information when used in combination:

Pelvic Exams

A pelvic exam involves a physical examination of the reproductive organs. The healthcare provider checks for unusual lumps or changes in the ovaries and other pelvic organs. While it’s an essential part of regular health care, pelvic exams have limitations in detecting early-stage ovarian cancer, as small tumors can be difficult to detect through palpation.

Transvaginal Ultrasound (TVU)

TVU uses sound waves to create images of the ovaries and surrounding tissues. It can detect masses on the ovaries but cannot determine whether they are benign or cancerous. This method provides visual information that can guide further testing or treatment decisions.

CA-125 Blood Test

The CA-125 blood test measures levels of Cancer Antigen 125, a protein that can be elevated in cases of ovarian cancer. However, this test isn’t definitive, as other conditions can also cause elevated CA-125 levels, and some women with ovarian cancer may have normal levels.

Combined Screening Approaches

Researchers have explored combining different screening methods to improve accuracy. For example, the Risk of Ovarian Cancer Algorithm (ROCA) uses both CA-125 testing and ultrasound to assess ovarian cancer risk. While these combined approaches show promise, studies are ongoing to determine their effectiveness in reducing ovarian cancer mortality.

Ovarian Cancer Screening Guidelines

The approach to ovarian cancer screening varies depending on a woman’s risk level. Current guidelines from major health organizations provide the following recommendations:

Recommendations for Average-Risk Women

For women at average risk of ovarian cancer, routine screening is not currently recommended. Studies have shown that the potential harms of screening (such as unnecessary surgeries resulting from false positives) outweigh the benefits for this group.

Guidelines for High-Risk Women

Women at high risk of ovarian cancer, such as those with certain genetic ovarian cancer mutations (like BRCA1 or BRCA2) or a strong family history, may benefit from more intensive screening. This could include regular CA-125 tests and transvaginal ultrasounds, typically starting at age 30-35.

USPSTF Recommendations

The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends against routine screening for ovarian cancer in women without symptoms who are not known to have a high-risk hereditary cancer syndrome.

This stark reality underscores a critical gap: we lack a definitive, accurate test for early detection. At Not These Ovaries, we’re determined to change this. Through our ovarian cancer research fund, we aim to raise money for research into precise screening methods so that one day, all women can access reliable early prevention without the fear of false positives.

Other Professional Organizations’ Guidelines

Organizations such as the American Cancer Society and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists also do not recommend routine screening for average-risk women. However, they emphasize the importance of recognizing ovarian cancer symptoms and promptly reporting any concerns to a healthcare provider.

Current Screening Methods: Challenges and Risks

Understanding the effectiveness of current screening methods is crucial for both healthcare providers and patients. However, several research studies highlight the challenges with current screening methods. 

  • Many positive results are false positives, leading to unnecessary anxiety and additional testing.
  • Current methods may miss some early-stage cancers or detect them at a later stage.
  • Some detected cancers might never have progressed to cause symptoms, potentially leading to unnecessary ovarian cancer treatment.
  • Most importantly, current screening methods have not been shown to reduce ovarian cancer mortality in the general population significantly.

While the goal of screening is to save lives, it’s important to understand the potential risks:

False-Positive Results

False-positive results can lead to unnecessary anxiety and additional testing. In the UKCTOCS trial, for every ovarian cancer detected, approximately 36 women underwent surgery following a false-positive result.

Unnecessary Surgeries

False-positive results may lead to unnecessary surgeries, which carry their own risks, including infection, bleeding, and damage to nearby organs.

Psychological Impact

The emotional impact of false-positive results should not be underestimated. Women may experience significant anxiety and distress while awaiting follow-up tests or results.

Overdiagnosis and Overtreatment

Screening may detect slow-growing cancers that would never have caused symptoms or affected a person’s lifespan, potentially leading to unnecessary treatment.

Who Should Consider Ovarian Cancer Screening?

While routine screening is not recommended for the general population, certain groups may benefit from ovarian cancer screening:

  • High-Risk Groups: Women with certain genetic mutations (such as BRCA1, BRCA2, or those associated with Lynch syndrome) have a significantly higher risk of developing ovarian cancer and should discuss screening options with their healthcare providers.
  • Family History Considerations: Women with a strong family history of ovarian cancer, even without known genetic mutations, may be at increased risk and should discuss potential screening options with their doctors.
  • Age-Related Recommendations: While the risk of ovarian cancer increases with age, age alone is not a reason for screening. However, women should be aware of ovarian cancer symptoms and report any persistent changes to their healthcare providers promptly.

Symptoms to Watch For

Awareness of potential ovarian cancer symptoms can lead to earlier detection. Common symptoms include:

  • Bloating or abdominal swelling
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
  • Urinary symptoms, such as urgency or frequency
  • Changes in bowel habits
  • Unexplained weight loss or gain
  • Fatigue

If these symptoms persist for over a few weeks, it’s essential to consult a healthcare provider for evaluation.

Future of Ovarian Cancer Screening

The future of ovarian cancer screening holds promise as researchers actively explore new approaches to improve early detection. 

One area of focus is the development of multi-marker blood tests that measure multiple proteins (ovarian cancer biomarkers) simultaneously, potentially increasing the accuracy of screening. Another promising avenue is the detection of circulating tumor DNA in the bloodstream, which could allow for earlier and more precise diagnosis. 

The research community is also investing in an ovarian cancer research fund to investigate advanced imaging techniques that may provide clearer and more detailed views of ovarian tissues. Additionally, genetic profiling is being studied to create personalized screening approaches, tailoring the screening process to an individual’s unique genetic risk factors. 

These innovative methods represent the potential for cutting-edge ovarian cancer research and offer hope for more effective screening tools.

Taking Action: Empowering Yourself and Supporting Research

While we await more effective screening methods, there are several ways to protect your health and contribute to the fight against ovarian cancer:

  • Understand your risk factors, including family history, and consider genetic counseling if appropriate.
  • Be aware of ovarian cancer symptoms and report persistent changes to your healthcare provider promptly.
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise and a balanced diet, which may help reduce cancer risk.
  • Consider participating in ovarian cancer clinical trials testing new screening methods or treatments.
  • Support research efforts through organizations like Not These Ovaries, which fund critical research into ovarian cancer detection and treatment.

By staying informed about ovarian cancer screening, being proactive about your health, and supporting ongoing research efforts, you play a vital role in advancing our understanding and management of this challenging disease. Together, we can work towards better outcomes for all women at risk of ovarian cancer.