NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Ovarian cancer will strike more than 22,000 American women this year and more than 14,000 will die of it.
Now, the United States Preventive Services Task Force is claiming most women don’t even need to be screened.
Screening and early detection normally means improved cancer survival, but screening tests for ovarian cancer aren’t very specific and that leads to a lot of false positives. It can result in interventions and surgeries which themselves carry substantial risks.
Ellen Stein was a normal, active, and apparently healthy 75-year-old until she went dress shopping one day.
“I was trying on dresses and I couldn’t fit into anything,” she said. “I became extremely bloated and not just a little bit, it’s as if I was eight-months pregnant.”
It was the first sign that Ellen had stage-3 ovarian cancer. Fortunately she saw her doctor right away for surgery and chemotherapy. Most women, however, aren’t always that lucky. Ovarian cancer has a high mortality rate because, according to gynecological oncologist Dr. Valentin Kolev of the Mount Sinai Downtown-Chelsea Center, the majority of cases are diagnosed at stage-4.
Even though early detection would improve the odds, the USPSTF on Tuesday recommended against routine screening for women without any symptoms, namely bloating or swelling, quickly feeling full when eating, unexplained weight loss, pelvic discomfort, changes in bowel habits, and frequent or urgent urination.
Typical symptoms are vague and pretty common, so how’s a woman supposed to know when she should seek further testing?
“Some progression of symptoms and most importantly, they’re new in nature,” Dr. Kolev said. “And more intense and persistent.”
The question often asked is how can more screening be a bad thing. It comes down to false positives, which ovarian cancer tests show a lot of.
“Then we do surgeries and procedures and that can lead to complications, harm can be more than benefit,” Dr. Kolev said.
Investigating persistent symptoms, like Ellen’s, can mean life and death.
“I’m doing well, life is almost what I did before,” she said. “I used to be an energizer bunny. I’m not that anymore, but I’m close.”
The no screening recommendation applies only to normal, healthy women. Women at higher risk, with personal or family history of breast or ovarian cancer or those with the BRCA breast cancer gene, should still be screened.