Published: Sept. 17, 2012
Updated: Sept. 17, 2012
News that the risks of ovarian cancer screening tests outweigh the benefits has some women wondering what they should do to prevent the deadly disease. According to the American Cancer Society, ovarian cancer strikes about 22,000 women annually, and kills more than 15,000. While the majority of cases occur in women between the ages of 50 and 75, younger women can be affected as well.
Laura Havrilesky, M.D., a gynecologic oncologist with the Duke Cancer Institute, explains what the latest findings mean and what every woman should know.
What do these recent screening recommendations mean?
The latest report reiterates what previous studies have already shown. The screenings – a blood test that looks for a substance linked to cancer and an ultrasound scan of the ovaries – yield a high number of false-positives. That can lead to unnecessary surgeries, which can cause serious complications whether or not ovarian cancer is found. At this point, it has been determined that the harm associated with these screening tests outweigh the benefits when they are performed on women who are not at risk for ovarian cancer.
How would I know if I am at risk?
Family history is the major risk factor If you have multiple family members with pre menopausal breast cancer, meaning before the age of 50, or at least one first or second degree relative with ovarian cancer, you are at increased risk. If you have a genetic mutation in your family, you may also be at risk and you may want to consider talking to a genetic counselor to help determine if genetic testing might be right for you.
Other risk factors include obesity and age -– most ovarian cancers occur in women between the ages of 50 and 75 -- and whether you have ever had children. Research suggests there is a relationship between the frequency of ovulation and ovarian cancer. That may explain why women who take fertility drugs and hormone replacement therapy are also at higher risk. It also explains why women who breast-feed are at lower risk.
If I am at high risk, what should I do?
There is some research to suggest that oral contraceptives may lower one’s risk for ovarian cancer. But again, it’s important to weigh the benefits and the risks. Birth control pills are associated with an increased risk for blood clots, heart attack, stroke and possibly breast cancer. They should not be taken simply to lower your risk for ovarian cancer.
Some women at very high risk may consider having their ovarian and fallopian tubes removed. This is typically not recommended until women are finished having children.
How would I know if I have ovarian cancer?
See your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms:
What can I do to prevent ovarian cancer?
Birth control pills may be an option for women who are young, have no history of heart disease, and who will gain an additional benefit, such as contraception, by taking them. Breast-feeding can also lower your risk because it decreases the number of times a woman ovulates. Finally, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, including staying active and eating a diet comprised primarily of plant foods, is always a good idea.
What is on the horizon to help prevent and treat ovarian cancer?
Doctors are looking more closely at the roles certain genes play. They continue to study the current screening methods and are exploring ways to detect ovarian cancer before symptoms develop. We’re not there yet, but a lot of different avenues related to prevention, diagnosis and treatment are under investigation.