You Don’t Have to Play the Ovarian Cancer Waiting Game

July 7, 2016

Ovarian cancer doesn’t present many symptoms, so it can feel like a macabre waiting game if you know you’re at risk. Maybe a family member had it, or Googling strange symptoms has you worried.

The trouble with ovarian cancer is that by the time it’s diagnosed it’s often already fairly advanced. Seventy percent of cases of the most common form, epithelial, aren’t found until they have spread.

The good news is that, thanks to modern technology, you don’t have to play the waiting game — and early stage 1 detection equates to a 90 percent survival rate. By finding out your risk one way or another, you’ll be empowered to be in control of your own health.

Know Your Options

Screening tests are used to detect cancer in people who don’t have symptoms, making them less reliable than tests used for people who do. However, the options are still available if you’re interested in getting screened — particularly if you have a family history of ovarian cancer, which is one of the strongest risk factors.

The two most common screening tests are a transvaginal ultrasound and a CA-125 (protein) blood test. New post-screening options include OVA1 and HE4 tests.

Here’s what you need to know about each:

Screening Option 1: Transvaginal Ultrasound (TVUS)

In a TVUS, your gynecologist inserts an ultrasound wand, using sound waves to inspect the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries for tumors. While this test can find masses, it can’t tell if they’re cancerous or not. In fact, most tumors found this way are benign.

Screening Option 2: CA-125 Blood Test

Many women with ovarian cancer have high levels of a protein called CA-125 in their blood, which has led CA-125 to be perceived as a tumor marker. High or low levels show if treatment is working.

High levels can imply that a woman may have ovarian cancer before a diagnosis, but these high levels can also be attributed to other noncancerous conditions, including menstruation, endometriosis, or even the first trimester of pregnancy. In the same vein, low levels don’t guarantee a woman is cancer-free. (Twenty percent of ovarian cancer patients don’t show any increase in CA-125 levels.)

Post-Screening Option 1: OVA1 Test

The recently approved OVA1 test has been shown to detect ovarian cancer at all stages of the disease and can also indicate risk. A doctor may perform the test if you’re showing symptoms of ovarian cancer or if the doctor recommends it after an ultrasound.

To conduct this test, your doctor will examine five biomarker proteins in your blood, insert those results into an algorithm, and use the result to calculate the probability that ovarian cancer is present. A high probability is a score of at least 5.0 for premenopausal women and at least 4.4 for postmenopausal.

Post-Screening Option 2: HE4 Test

This test is similar to CA-125, yet more effective, notching 72.9 percent detection vs. 43.3 percent in one study. The option involves using a protein called HE4 to detect and monitor ovarian cancer’s progression.

Bottom line, screenings can be helpful in ovarian cancer prevention, but post-screening options are more reliable in detecting and managing the disease. No test is foolproof, so talk to your doctor about your family history, any unusual symptoms, and which tests may be right for you.

You’re the best advocate your body has. By putting yourself in control, you can put your mind at ease.