Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cancer in women but “causes more deaths than any other type female reproductive cancer.” The high fatality rate of ovarian cancer is partially due to the fact that it is difficult to diagnose. Ovarian cancer “is usually quite advanced by the time diagnosis is made.” Unfortunately, a recent study revealed that doctors often neglect to refer women at a high risk for developing the disease to an ovarian cancer screening. Indeed, 60% of physicians surveyed would not recommend testing for a woman at high risk for developing ovarian cancer.
While many high-risk women are not screened for ovarian cancer, far too many women at only an average risk of developing ovarian cancer are screened. Additionally, the study found that 30% of doctors in the study would refer a woman with an average risk of developing ovarian cancer to screening. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) “a federally-supported expert panel, advises against routine counseling and testing for women who don’t have suspicious cases of cancer in their family, such as two close relatives with breast cancer, one of whom got it before age 50.” It is unwise to submit a woman at only an average risk of developing ovarian cancer to testing because the tests themselves may be harmful to her health. Also, unnecessary testing will put a strain on the healthcare system.
Jacqueline Miller at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who worked on the study, told the Los Angeles Times that only 1 in 300 women carry the gene mutations which put one at an increased risk for developing breast and ovarian cancers. Since the mutations are so rare, if women at average risk for developing ovarian cancer were routinely screened, “‘you would be over-testing a lot of women, spending a lot of resources and a lot of money.’” She added that it is possible that over-testing would cause “some false alarms as well, exposing women to unnecessary treatment and other harms…‘For a lot of women, just going through the test creates a lot of anxiety,’ she said.”
Miller stated that “The most important lesson from the new findings are to make sure that women at high risk are identified so they can get the right counseling.” However, she advises “that women should never agree to get tested without knowing the reasons. ‘You should have that conversation with your provider: why do you feel I’m at high risk? If a physician tells you you should get genetic counseling, you should understand why.’” To learn more about ovarian cancer and the research that is being done to combat it, click here.