Ovarian cancer is a cancer that starts in the ovaries. It can often go undetected until it spreads from the ovaries to within the pelvis and abdomen. Once ovarian reaches this late stage it is very difficult to treat and oftentimes is fatal. There are treatments available but they are more effective when the cancer is detected in an earlier stage, with 75 to 90 percent of patients surviving for at least five years. Recently a new way of screening for ovarian cancer has been developed that appears to be able to detect the disease in its early stages. This test could become routine in screening women for ovarian cancer.
While conducting this study researchers tested more than 4,000 women over a period of 11 years. These women underwent blood tests every year during which the researchers recorded the levels of protein called CA-125. The majority of ovarian tumors produce this protein. When a woman in the study had a sudden increase in CA-125 levels they were referred to a gynecologist where they received an ultrasound.
Based on the ultrasound results, 10 women in the study underwent surgery. Four of these women had ovarian cancers that were still in the early stages. Five other women did have benign ovarian tumors or tumors of low malignant potential (these tumors could become cancerous, however they usually do not). Another woman had endometrial cancer.
It was suggested by this study that this strategy of testing had a specificity of 99.9 percent. This means that only 0.1 percent of patients who did not have cancer would be incorrectly identified as having this disease. Only two women who participated in the study had ovarian tumors that the screening did not detect. However, both were low in malignant potential.
The results of this study will not change the way screenings are done at this time. However, the findings of the study do suggest that a change in the screening strategy over time could be beneficial for postmenopausal women who have an average risk of developing ovarian cancer.
Currently there are not any established screening tests for ovarian cancer. In order for a screening test for cancer to be useful it needs to be sensitive enough to detect markers of the disease prior to symptoms manifesting as well as specific enough so as to not falsely suggest that people who do not have cancer have it.
Previous studies in looking at whether a woman’s CA-125 levels are high have not been sensitive enough to detect all cases of ovarian cancer and there were too many false positives. This new screening strategy is different because it tracks changes in the woman’s CA-125 levels rather than looking for a CA-125 level that could be considered high based on the average of the population as a whole. The test is more personalized and it considers the persons age.
The results of a larger, randomized study are currently being conducted using the same screening strategy. These results are scheduled for release by 2015.
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