Current screening methods can detect ovarian cancer – just not early enough to save women’s lives. That’s the finding from a study scheduled to come out in the June 8 issue of JAMA, which looked at more than 78,000 women. Those who were screened with blood tests called CA-125 and transvaginal ultrasound weren’t less likely to die of ovarian cancer, but were more likely to have invasive surgery due to false-positive results.
The women in the study, all ages 55 to 74, were divided into two groups and either underwent annual ovarian cancer screening or usual medical care without screening. Doctors found more cancers (212 vs. 176) in the screening group, but a similar number of ovarian cancer deaths (118 in the screening group vs. 100 in the usual care group), suggesting that detecting the cancers at that stage wasn’t enough to save lives. “We weren’t finding them at a really early stage, which was very disappointing,” says Christine Berg, M.D., chief of the Early Detection Research Group at the National Institutes of Health’s division of cancer prevention and one of the study’s authors.
Ovarian cancers, Berg explains, can occur on the surface of the ovary or on the lining of the fallopian tubes. Cancerous cells can then detach, float around in the abdominal cavity, and spread to other parts of the body. Keeping these cancers from spreading means detecting them while they are still attached to the ovary, and some experts estimate this means detecting tumors as small as 4 millimeters.
That won’t happen, Berg says, until imaging techniques improve. She is optimistic, because that technology is advancing rapidly. “We’re just not there yet.”
While the ovarian cancer screenings in the study didn’t save lives, they did result in more than 3,200 false-positive results and more than 1,000 surgeries to remove one or both ovaries – necessary to biopsy the tumor. And around 15% of these women experienced surgical complications ranging from blood clots to infections to problems with wound healing. “These are not minor complications,” says Berg.
Ovarian cancer screening isn’t common. Berg says just 1-3% of women are being offered these tests now, “and I think that it will become even less common based on the results of this study. People think, Oh, I’ll just have a blood test, without thinking what comes next. You don’t want to be chasing something that isn’t worth going through the complications for.”
To create ovarian cancer screening that saves lives, Berg and colleagues are focused on advances in imaging and other detection technologies and on more accurately pinpointing who is at risk. (BRCA1 and 2 gene mutations are shown to increase a woman’s risk of ovarian and breast cancer, but those mutations are rare, found in just 1 in 700 women in the U.S.) “We’re coordinating in all these research avenues, hoping that we can move things forward,” Berg says.
Meanwhile, she reminds all women to keep their risk as low as possible by not smoking, watching what they eat, keeping their weight healthy and exercising. And she advises postmenopausal women considering hormone replacement therapy to stay on it only as long as absolutely necessary, as HRT has been shown to increase risk of ovarian cancer.
Finally, she reminds us all that, thankfully, ovarian cancer remains an uncommon disease. “Most women in the U.S. are going to die of heart disease in old age,” Berg says.