Screening For Ovarian Cancer Isn’t Helpful and May Actually Be Hazardous to Your Health

A recommendation against testing follows in the footsteps of advice against routine mammograms for women under 50.
Fluorescent-stained ovarian carcinoma cells. (Rawlins PhD / Getty)
Sep 10, 2012
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

“Tests commonly recommended to screen healthy women for ovarian cancer do more harm than good and should not be performed,” reports The New York Times. Not only do the screenings “not lower the death rate from the disease . . . they yield many false-positive results that lead to unnecessary operations with high complication rates.”

The Times goes on to quote Dr. Virginia A. Moyer, the chairwoman of the panel making the recommendation, the United States Preventive Services Task Force, saying, “There is no existing method of screening for ovarian cancer that is effective in reducing deaths . . . In fact, a high percentage of women who undergo screening experience false-positive test results and consequently may be subjected to unnecessary harms, such as major surgery.”

ABC News added, “In recommending against routine screening of asymptomatic women, the USPSTF cited results of the NIH-sponsored Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian (PLCO) Cancer Screening Trial, which showed that screening with CA-125 [the serum tumor marker cancer antigen] and transvaginal ultrasound did not reduce a woman's risk of death from ovarian cancer, as compared with unscreened women.”

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And they noted, “A Japanese study showed a similar lack of accuracy for screening with transvaginal or transabdominal ultrasound plus CA-125 testing. Investigators in the screening study estimated that 33 surgeries occurred for every case of screen-detected ovarian cancer.”

However, all of the reports have been careful to note that this information only applies to healthy women with an average risk of ovarian cancer, “not to those with suspicious symptoms or those at high risk because they carry certain genetic mutations or have a family history of the disease.”

According to the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, those symptoms include, “bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, trouble eating or feeling full quickly, feeling the need to urinate urgently or often. Other symptoms of ovarian cancer can include: fatigue, upset stomach or heartburn, back pain, pain during sex, constipation or menstrual changes.” And they explain that one of the reasons ovarian cancer is difficult to detect is that the ovaries are located deep within the abdominal cavity.

Yet, the Annals of Internal Medicine reported early this year that, “One in three physicians believed that ovarian cancer screening was effective, despite evidence to the contrary. Substantial proportions of physicians reported routinely offering or ordering ovarian cancer screening, thereby exposing women to the documented risks of these tests.”

The Times sums up the pitfalls in this approach, quoting Dr. Edward E. Partridge, the director of the  University of Alabama at Birmingham Comprehensive Cancer Center: “You can fine-tune it all you want to, and that still doesn’t change the bottom line . . . I think it’s really important that both the physician and the public really learn and assimilate that this test as it’s currently delivered is not effective at reducing death rates from ovarian cancer. We’ve got to find something else.”

Are you surprised by the recommendation against screening for ovarian cancer? Will you still ask you doctor to perform blood tests despite the risk of a false positive result?

Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence |

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