Can ovarian cancer be found early?
About 20% of ovarian cancers are found at an early stage. When ovarian cancer is found early at a localized stage, about 94% of patients live longer than 5 years after diagnosis. Several large studies are in progress to learn the best ways to find ovarian cancer in its earliest stage.
Regular women's health exams
During a pelvic exam, the health care professional feels the ovaries and uterus for size, shape, and consistency. A pelvic exam can be useful because it can find some reproductive system cancers at an early stage, but most early ovarian tumors are difficult or impossible for even the most skilled examiner to feel. Pelvic exams may, however, help identify other cancers or gynecologic conditions. Women should discuss the need for these exams with their doctor.
The Pap test is effective in early detection of cervical cancer, but it isnít a test for ovarian cancer. Rarely, ovarian cancers are found through Pap tests, but usually they are at an advanced stage.
See a doctor if you have symptoms
Early cancers of the ovaries often cause no symptoms. When ovarian cancer causes symptoms, they tend to be symptoms that are more commonly caused by other things. These symptoms include abdominal swelling or bloating (due to a mass or a buildup of fluid), pelvic pressure or abdominal pain, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly, and/or urinary symptoms (having to go urgently or often). Most of these symptoms can also be caused by other less serious conditions. These symptoms can be more severe when they are caused by ovarian cancer, but that isnít always true. What is most important is that they are a change from how a woman usually feels.
By the time ovarian cancer is considered as a possible cause of these symptoms, it usually has already spread beyond the ovaries. Also, some types of ovarian cancer can rapidly spread to the surface of nearby organs. Still, prompt attention to symptoms may improve the odds of early diagnosis and successful treatment. If you have symptoms similar to those of ovarian cancer almost daily for more than a few weeks, and they can't be explained by other more common conditions, report them to your health care professional -- preferably a gynecologist -- right away.
Screening tests for ovarian cancer
Screening tests and exams are used to detect a disease, like cancer, in people who donít have any symptoms. Perhaps the best example of this is the mammogram, which can often detect breast cancer in its earliest stage, even before a doctor can feel the cancer. There has been a lot of research to develop a screening test for ovarian cancer, but there hasnít been much success so far. The 2 tests used most often to screen for ovarian cancer are transvaginal ultrasound and the CA-125 blood test.
Transvaginal ultrasound is a test that uses sound waves to look at the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries by putting an ultrasound transducer into the vagina. It can help find a mass (tumor) in the ovary, but it can't actually tell if a mass is cancer or benign. When it is used for screening, most of the masses found are not cancer.
CA-125 is a protein in the blood. In many women with ovarian cancer, levels of CA-125 are high. This test can be useful as a tumor marker to help guide treatment in women known to have ovarian cancer, because a high level often goes down if treatment is working.
But checking CA-125 levels has not been found to be as useful as a screening test for ovarian cancer. The problem with using this test for screening is that common conditions other than cancer can also cause high levels of CA-125. In women who have not been diagnosed with cancer, a high CA-125 level is more often caused by one of these other conditions and not ovarian cancer. Also, not everyone who has ovarian cancer has a high CA-125 level. When someone who is not known to have ovarian cancer has an abnormal CA-125 level, the doctor might repeat the test (to make sure the result is correct). The doctor could also consider ordering a transvaginal ultrasound test.
In studies of women at average risk of ovarian cancer, using transvaginal ultrasound and CA-125 for screening led to more testing and sometimes more surgeries, but did not lower the number of deaths caused by ovarian cancer. For that reason, no major medical or professional organization recommends the routine use of transvaginal ultrasound or the CA-125 blood test to screen for ovarian cancer.
Some organizations state that these tests may be offered to screen women who have a high risk of ovarian cancer due to an inherited genetic syndrome. Still, even in these women, itís not clear that using these tests for screening lowers their chances of dying from ovarian cancer.
Better ways to screen for ovarian cancer are being researched. Hopefully, improvements in screening tests will eventually lead to a lower ovarian cancer death rate.
There are no recommended screening tests for germ cell tumors or stromal tumors. Some germ cell cancers release certain protein markers such as human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) and alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) into the blood. After these tumors have been treated by surgery and chemotherapy, blood tests for these markers can be used to see if treatment is working and to determine if the cancer is coming back.
Researchers continue to look for new tests to help diagnose ovarian cancer early but currently there are no reliable screening tests.
A BRCA mutation is a mutation in either of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which are tumor suppressor genes. Hundreds of different types of mutations in these genes have been identified, some of which have been determined to be harmful, while others as benign or of still unknown or uncertain impact. Harmful mutations in these genes may produce a hereditary breast-ovarian cancer syndrome in affected persons. Only 5-10% of breast cancer cases in women are attributed to BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations, but the impact on women with the gene mutation is more profound. Women with harmful mutations in either BRCA1 or BRCA2 have a risk of breast cancer that is about five times the normal risk, and a risk of ovarian cancer that is about ten to thirty times normal. The risk of breast and ovarian cancer is higher for women with a high-risk BRCA1 mutation than with a BRCA2 mutation. Having a high-risk mutation does not guarantee that the woman will develop any type of cancer, or imply that any cancer that appears was actually caused by the mutation, rather than some other factor.
Genetic counseling is commonly recommended to people whose personal or family health history suggests a greater than average likelihood of a mutation. Genetic counselors are allied health professionals who are trained to explain genetics to people; some of them are also licensed as registered nurses or social workers. A medical geneticist is a physician who specializes in genetics. The purpose of genetic counseling is to educate the person about the likelihood of a positive result, the risks and benefits of being tested, the limitations of the tests, the practical meaning of the results, and the risk-reducing actions that could be taken if the results are positive. They are also trained to support people through any emotional reactions and to be a neutral person who helps the client make his or her own decision in an informed consent model, without pushing the client to do what the counselor might do. Because the knowledge of a mutation can produce substantial anxiety, some people choose not to be tested or to postpone testing until a later date.
Relative indications for testing for a mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2 include a family history among 1st, 2nd, or 3rd degree relatives in either lineage with any of the following:
Breast cancer diagnosed at age 50 or younger
Multiple primary breast cancers either in the same breast or opposite breast in an individual
Both breast and ovarian cancer
Male breast cancer
Triple-negative (estrogen receptor negative, progesterone receptor negative, and HER2/neu negative) breast cancer
Pancreatic cancer with breast or ovarian cancer in the same individual or on the same side of the family
Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry
Two or more relatives with breast cancer, one under age 50
Three or more relatives with breast cancer at any age
A previously identified BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation in the family
Testing young children is considered medically unethical because the test results would not change the way the child's health is cared for.
If the client chooses to be tested, then two types of tests are available. Both commonly use a blood sample, although testing can be done on saliva. The quickest, simplest, and lowest cost test uses positive test results from a blood relative and checks only for the single mutation that is known to be present in the family. If no relative has previously disclosed positive test results, then a full test that checks the entire sequence of both BRCA1 and BRCA2 can be performed. In some cases, because of the founder effect, Jewish ethnicity can be used to narrow the testing to quickly check for the three most common mutations seen among Ashkenazi Jews.
Testing is commonly covered by health insurance and public healthcare programs for people at high risk for having a mutation, and not covered for people at low risk. The purpose of limiting the testing to high-risk people is to increase the likelihood that the person will receive a meaningful, actionable result from the test, rather than identifying a variant of unknown significance (VUS). In Canada, people who demonstrate their high-risk status by meeting specified guidelines are referred initially to a specialized program for hereditary cancers, and, if they choose to be tested, the cost of the test is fully covered. In the USA in 2010, single-site testing had a retail cost of US$400 to $500, and full-length analysis cost about $3,000 per gene, and the costs were commonly covered by private health insurance for people deemed to be at high risk.
The test is ordered by a physician, usually an oncologist, and the results are always returned to the physician, rather than directly to the patient. How quickly results are returned depends on the testósingle-site analysis requires less lab timeóand on the infrastructure in place. In the USA, test results are commonly returned within one to several weeks; in Canada, patients commonly wait for eight to ten months for test results.
A positive test result for a known deleterious mutation is proof of a predisposition, although it does not guarantee that the person will develop any type of cancer. A negative test result, if a specific mutation is known to be present in the family, shows that the person does not have a BRCA-related predisposition for cancer, although it does not guarantee that the person will not develop a non-hereditary case of cancer. By itself, a negative test result does not mean that the patient has no hereditary predisposition for breast or ovarian cancer. The family may have some other genetic predisposition for cancer, involving some other gene.