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What can I do to catch ovarian cancer early?

December 05, 2012

The number one question women ask regarding ovarian cancer is what can I do to protect myself? I tell them to make sure they see your gynecologist every year.

But what else can women do?

They can educate themselves about the symptoms most commonly associated with ovarian cancer. These symptoms include: bloating, increase in waist size, feeling full quickly after a meal, heart burn or reflux, pressure in the lower abdomen, having to urinate often, significant weight loss. Because these symptoms can be caused by so many other conditions, women often dismiss them or seek evaluation by all sorts of specialist without ever seeing a gynecologist. When and if they finally see a gynecologist, the cancer is found in a late stage.

There are blood tests that gynecologists order, such as the CA-125 blood test or the HE4 blood test, to help them figure out whether a cyst or mass on the ovary could be cancerous. Doctors have also used these blood tests in an attempt to screen women who have a family history of ovarian cancer. In this case the blood test is usually combined with a pelvic ultrasound.

What is the CA-125 blood test?

It is a test used to detect a certain protein in the blood. High levels of this protein can be a sign that something worrisome has developed, such as ovarian cancer. There are many other reasons however, why the level may be high---many non-cancerous reasons. The HE4 blood test is another test that is fairly new. When this level is also high, the suspicion for cancer is increased.

What is the pelvic ultrasound?

This is an ultrasound or sonogram that uses a probe on the abdomen or in the vagina to get a picture of the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries. Very often the best picture is obtained by placing the probe in the vagina.

What is a screening test?

Screening tests are usually used to detect a disease when it is in an early stage while it can still be cured or before it causes significant harm.

When women think of screening for cancer, they probably think of mammograms to detect breast cancer in its very early stages. They might also think of pap smears to detect abnormal cells or pre-cancer of the cervix. Mammograms and pap smears are two good screening strategies that have been developed to help save the lives of women against two very common cancers.

Researchers are still working on developing a good test or combination of tests that will help detect ovarian cancer in an early stage when there is still a chance for cure.

In the meantime, what can women do to protect themselves? They can make sure they see a gynecologist on a yearly basis.

Who has the highest risk of developing ovarian cancer?

Women with a family history of ovarian cancer or certain inherited disorders are at such high risk of developing ovarian cancer that the CA125 blood test combined with a pelvic ultrasound has been shown to be a worthwhile screening tool when performed once or twice a year for this group of women. Unfortunately, multiple studies so far have shown there is no benefit when these same testing strategies are used to screen the average woman. In fact, in certain cases these tests have led to women having unnecessary surgery. The recently published PLCO Cancer Screening Trial showed that the combination of the CA125 blood test and a pelvic ultrasound, when used to screen average women, was not helpful in detecting ovarian cancer before it had a chance to spread. I feel it is important to evaluate the entire situation and treat every woman as an individual.