Ovarian Cancer Screening

Cancer of the ovary is the eighth most common cancer in women, affecting about a quarter of a million women per year. Symptoms of ovarian cancer, when they appear at all—usually not until the later stages of the disease—are usually non-specific. Moreover, screening tests have a high false positive rate, meaning that women who may have ovarian cancer and not be aware of it even quite late on, but women who get tested for it may believe they have it even though they do not. However, a positive test in addition to symptoms—which include weight loss, painful intercourse, constipation, frequent urination, abdominal pain, and feeling full unusually quickly when eating—are quite likely to have the disease.

However, researchers are investigating new screening techniques that may prove more accurate, and will be able to detect ovarian cancer in the early stages when it is most treatable. The technique looks at a particular protein in the blood, which changes in response to early signs of tumor formation. Using this test, doctors can see if a patient has cancer or does not have cancer, or if further testing is needed to confirm. The second round of testing for women at intermediate risk helps weed out false positives. This means women can be regularly screened for ovarian cancer with little fear that a positive result that does not reflect actual cancer will lead to unnecessary treatment.

This means that it is easier to screen women who are at high risk. The high-risk category is women between 50 and 60 years old, women on estrogen replacement therapy, women who had early menarche (before age 12) or late menopause or both, people who used intrauterine devices for contraception, people who have never been pregnant, polycystitc ovarian syndrome patients, and smokers. In addition, the BRCA genes associated with breast cancer risk raise the risk of cancer of the ovaries as well.

Although IUDs raise the risk of ovarian cancer, other forms of birth control can lower it. Since the birth control pill causes similar hormonal changes to pregnancy—it essentially works by mimicking pregnancy, preventing ovulation—it has the same effect as pregnancy on ovarian cancer risk. Breastfeeding may also lower the risk, as can a low-dose aspirin regimen.

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