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Why Every Woman Shouldn’t be Screened for Ovarian Cancer

October 19, 2017

Women who don’t have any signs or symptoms of ovarian cancer and don’t have a high risk for the disease should not undergo screening, according to a government panel of health experts.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recently released recommendations based on a thorough review of peer-reviewed research. It found that screening women who didn’t have any symptoms and were low risk didn’t significantly reduce the number of ovarian cancer deaths and may even lead to unnecessary surgeries. 

The two current tests used for ovarian cancer screening are the transvaginal ultrasound (TVUS) and the CA-125 blood test, but they aren’t the most accurate tests for detecting cancer and may even generate false-positives that cause women to remove their ovaries when it isn’t necessary to do so.

These screening tests likely do more harm than good in women who are low-risk and lack symptoms. Studies have indicated women of average risk for ovarian cancer who used these two blood tests to screen for cancer often experienced more unnecessary testing and surgeries. However, screening also did not lead to fewer deaths.

Women who have a high risk for ovarian cancer, such as those with a family history, a genetic mutation or a previous history of breast cancer, should undergo screening.

This year, more than 22,000 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which is the eighth most common form of cancer and the fifth leading cause of cancer death in the country.

Ovarian cancer is best treated when it is caught early. About 20 percent of these cancers are found early, leading to a more successful prognosis for patients — 94 percent of patients with early-stage, localized ovarian cancer live at least five years after their initial diagnosis, according to the American Cancer Society.

So, if screening is ineffective, what can you do to lower your risk? Get an annual wellness exam. Your doctor should perform a pelvic exam at this time, which will involve checking the ovaries and uterus for irregularities in their size or shape. While a pelvic exam can identify some gynecologic cancers early, ovarian cancer is very difficult to detect at an early stage. On top of this, ovarian cancer usually doesn’t have any symptoms until the disease has progressed. Still, regular check-ups with your doctor are important, especially if you have ongoing symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating, pressure in your pelvis or urinary issues.

Research currently is underway to develop more accurate screening tests, but until then the best defense against ovarian cancer is to reduce your risk. While genetics may play a role in the development of the disease in some patients, diet and obesity have been linked to a higher risk of ovarian cancer, so sticking to a low-fat diet and taking steps to maintain a healthy weight could lower your overall risk. Prevention often is the best form of medicine, so living as healthy a lifestyle as possible and making time for an annual well-woman exam could keep you from ever needing an ovarian cancer screening test in the first place.

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Maintaining gynecologic health is important at every stage of a woman’s life. While a relatively small percentage of women will ever develop gynecologic cancer, it is important to understand what it is and what the warning signs are. Early detection can be crucial to successfully treating and defeating cancer.

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