Ovarian Cancer Screening

When detected early enough, ovarian cancer has a ninety percent cure rate. A patient is considered cured if she survives disease-free after five years. Unfortunately, only a quarter of ovarian cancer is diagnosed at Stage I. The majority of cases are diagnosed at Stage III or IV, when the disease is well advanced.

These sobering statistics indicate the need for some form of early ovarian cancer detection. At present the only definitive test is a laparoscopy, an invasive surgical procedure that allows the surgeon to directly examine the ovaries. Obviously, the technique cannot be used as an early screening tool.

Many women undergo a laparoscopy only to discover that their ovaries are, in fact, disease free. An accurate screening test could reduce the number of unnecessary laparoscopies.

Criteria for an Ovarian Cancer Detection Test

A screening test would have to fulfill certain requirements to receive widespread use. Researchers would have to prove that the test was reliable, and that using the screening technique would reduce mortality rates. The test could not interfere with a women’s quality of life. And finally, sadly, money is an issue. Any screening test approved for general use would have to be cost effective.

CA125 Tumor Markers and Transvaginal Ultrasound

Two potential ovarian cancer detection tests are currently under investigation. A simple blood test is all that is needed to measure levels of CA125. CA125 is a tumor marker that is present in high amounts in the blood in eighty percent of ovarian cancer cases.

Transvaginal ultrasound uses a hand held ultrasound probe that is inserted into the vagina, where it can direct sound waves at the ovaries. The technique allows doctors to distinguish between fluid-filled, benign cysts, and tumors.

Neither of these two tests is reliable enough to be considered a screening test. However, by combining the two, researchers hope to be able to at least reduce the number of unnecessary laparoscopies.

Tumor Markers: Is More Better?

Other research is under way to develop a panel of blood tests for different ovarian tumor markers. The result would be a series of blood tests that measure the levels of CA125 and other tumor markers such as M-CSF and LPA. Measuring the levels of multiple tumor markers may prove more effective than concentrating on one particular marker, such as CA125.


National Cancer Institute. (Updated 2003). Prevention of ovarian cancer. Retrieved May 29, 2003, from www.cancer.gov/cancerinfo/pdq/prevention/ovarian/patient#Sectio n_1.