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Ovarian Cancer - Still Waiting for Early Detection

Updated on July 7, 2012
Drjacki profile image

Jacqueline Thompson is a practicing physician currently residing in North Carolina.

The Quiet Killer


We're Not There Yet

I am often asked about where things stand with any sort of screening program for ovarian cancer, and the sad news is that not much has changed over the years. We still do not have a reliable test that could be widely applied and be reasonably capable of predicting women who have a higher risk of this deadly form of female genital cancer. Sure, there is always ultrasound and MRI as well as a blood test or two to check for cancer antigens that are sometimes associated with ovarian tumors, but none of these is satisfactory and none have received universal approval among cancer specialists as screening tests.

Expanded tests for cancer biomarkers in the blood have been proposed, and one such test (OVA1 Ovarian Triage Test) did receive FDA approval for use in 2009. But it remains controversial, and there is no consensus among gynecologic cancer specialists as to the best use of this test. For now, this test is mainly used to identify the relative risk of cancer in women who have already been identified as having a pelvic tumor based on examination or radiologic imaging - the surgeon can then have a better idea of how to best plan the surgery. So how does the average woman figure out if something is going on in those 2 x 3 centimeter ovaries?

Paying attention to what has been described as the "whisper" of ovarian cancer symptoms is key - this includes pelvic pain, abdominal pain or bloating, actual swelling of the abdomen and/or feeling full soon after beginning to eat. If even one of these symptoms is present for more than two weeks per month for up to one year, there is a 50-90% sensitivity for actual ovarian disease - this varies with the age group, and older women with these symptoms have a higher risk. But don't all women have similar symptoms at times? Of course, but it is unusual to have those for more than 2 weeks at a stretch.

Physical examination to check for enlarged ovaries or the presence of a mass in the pelvis is important, but if the woman is overweight, the exam is much less accurate. Imaging alone, such as ultrasound exam of the ovaries can actually lead a woman to go through a surgery for something that was never going to cause any problems at all (i.e. benign ovarian cysts). Some specialists in this area of medicine have suggested that combining the vaginal ultrasound with blood testing for CA-125 cancer antigen is helpful, but this test combination is still reserved for women who have already been identified as being at higher risk for ovarian cancer.

Women at higher risk would certainly include those who have first degree relative (mother or sister) with definitively diagnosed ovarian cancer. Even though hereditary ovarian cancer accounts for only about 10% of all cases, those women may want to have genetic testing for BRCA gene mutation. Relatives who had simple or other benign ovarian cysts or endometriosis do not factor into this group. Women with relatives with certain other GYN cancer history such as cervical disease also do not factor into that higher risk group. Ovarian cancer risk is actually DECREASED in women who have had multiple pregnancies, breastfed their children, have had their tubes blocked for sterilization (or have had hysterectomy) and those who have taken birth control pills for at least five years.

Even though ovarian cancer is only the fifth most common malignancy in women, it kills more than any other reproductive organ disease. Most cases (70%) are detected in the later stages (III or IV) where the tumor has already spread to distant organs and tissues. But the survival is dramatically improved if the disease is in stage I and confined to one ovary (90%). So the search for a good screening tool is still on. At this time, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists does not recommend whole-population screening for this cancer, but they do advocate women and their health care providers to pay close attention to any concerning, persistent symptoms.

Shannon Miller - Olympic Champion


Recently, Olympic gymnast Shannon Miller revealed details of her battle with ovarian cancer. Her disease was early stage and detected on physical exam. After surgery, she underwent chemotherapy and appears to be doing just fine.


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    • Drjacki profile image

      Drjacki 6 years ago from North Carolina

      My Footprints, you hit the nail on the head...pray! It is a big disappointment to me that the last 20 years have really only yielded more effective chemotherapies for ovarian cancer rather than anything that can really predict and allow prevention. Cure for this is really not what I have been seeing out there because of the very late detection. Shannon Miller is blessed to have found a great gynecologist who found her disease at the very beginning. Also, there are different kinds of ovarian cancer, and some are way worse actors than others...I didn't touch on that in this short article because it just tends to confuse people with too much info!

    • My Footprints profile image

      My Footprints 6 years ago from MY

      It is always scary to read articles on the big C but knowledge is empowerment. Ovarian cancer is definitely something that we women have to be careful of. Pray that there is some discovery in this area to enable early detection. Great article.