Ovarian cancer: is early identification possible?
Ovarian cancer is one of the deadliest cancers in women because it often isn’t found until late stage. It is also one of the most difficult to diagnose, particularly during early stages when symptoms can be vague and therefore mistaken for other common, less serious health problems.
Certain factors increase a women’s risk of ovarian cancer. Old age, having one or more relatives with ovarian cancer, never being pregnant, and being overweight are contributors. Other factors decrease a women’s chances of contracting the disease. These include using hormonal methods of birth control, being pregnant and breastfeeding, and having your tubes tied or your uterus and ovaries removed.
Women at high risk might consider undertaking a screening test. While studies have not yet shown that current screening tests decrease the risk of dying of ovarian cancer, women with significant risk factors should consult their doctor to discuss their options. At present, screening options include a blood test of the CA125 tumour marker, and a pelvic ultrasound. These tests can be taken in isolation or combined.
CA125 is a protein that is higher than normal in approximately 80 per cent of women with ovarian cancer. However, CA 125 levels can also be high with a variety of other conditions, including endometriosis, uterine fibroids, liver disease (cirrhosis), pelvic infections and other cancers, such as endometrial, breast, lung, and pancreatic cancer. CA125 levels are naturally higher than normal in around one per cent of healthy women, and the levels change during the menstrual cycle. Some women with early stage ovarian cancer may have normal CA125 levels.
Pelvic ultrasound uses sound waves to create an image of the organs in the pelvis, including the ovaries. However, ultrasound cannot definitively tell the difference between ovarian cancer and other more common conditions.
It is easy to understand why there is a great deal of interest in finding a test or combination of tests that could detect ovarian cancer at an early, treatable stage.
If you have pelvic or abdominal discomfort, bloating, difficulty eating or feeling full, increased abdominal size, or are rushing to urinate frequently, contact Greenslopes and Obstetrics and Gynaecology. Our Gynaecological Oncologist is available to discuss your symptoms and options with you.
You can also read more about ovarian cancer and its early detection:
- Cancer Council Australia
- Ovarian Cancer Australia
- National Cancer Institute, USA