Ovarian cancer is the fifth most deadly cancer among women, killing 15,000 women each year. But because symptoms are easily overlooked, diagnosis often comes too late for successful intervention. As a result, more women die of ovarian cancer than any other type of reproductive cancer.
Like other forms of cancer, early detection is the key to surviving this deadly disease. So to safeguard their health, many women opt for ultrasound testing and CA-125 blood screening to reveal hidden disease. Unfortunately, these tests are often inaccurate, producing false alarms that cause more harm than good.
Results from a large-scale, 18-year study support these problematic testing results. In that study of 78,216 women, those randomly assigned to ovarian cancer screening died at the same rate as women who were not screened. Although a more accurate test does not yet exist, the medical community at large discourages the use of the CA-125 test.
Fear, Anxiety and Unnecessary Surgery
Relatively benign conditions – ovarian cysts, fibroids, even pregnancy – can elevate the CA-125 protein in the blood, producing a false positive. But knowing that the test might be wrong is little comfort to the woman testing positive for this silent killer. With surgery as the only treatment option, those acting on the false information undergo unnecessary invasive procedures, which carry their own risks.
In a study by the National Cancer Institute, false positive CA-125 test results led nearly 3,300 healthy women to have unnecessary surgery, which involves removing reproductive organs and surrounding tissue. Among those, 166 developed surgical complications, ranging from infections to blood clots in the lungs. While none of complications proved fatal, some were very serious.
Is Genetic Testing the Answer?
Women at high risk for ovarian cancer may opt for genetic testing to make a more informed decision on their options regarding preemptive treatment. Those whose tests reveal a mutation in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes may choose preemptive removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes, a solution that improves, but does not entirely eliminate the risk of contracting the disease.
Women considering surgery based on CA-125 testing should request more thorough investigation of their condition by their doctor before proceeding.