Around 75-85% of women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed at a late stage.
The statistics for ovarian cancer are frightening. Whereas early detection tests for breast cancer are relatively commonplace, 75-85% of women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed only at a late stage, when the cancer has spread and prognosis is poor.
More than 21,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year and over 14,000 die annually from this disease. A woman has a 1 in 70 risk of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer in her lifetime.
As there is no effective surveillance technique for detecting early stage ovarian cancer, physicians are focused instead on identifying women at risk and finding effective preventive methods.
"It isn't clear what can be done to improve the early detection of ovarian cancer," Dr. Robyn Andersen, an expert in ovarian cancer symptoms and screening at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, WA, told Medical News Today, adding:
"Scientists are working on tests, but there is no simple procedure or screening test to recommend right now for most women. We don't know of anything that works really well, but there are a few things that can be done that we believe will help women in high-risk families - that's part of the reason for making sure high-risk women know that ovarian cancer is a possible problem."
Of particular concern to Dr. Andersen is raising awareness among women of the genetic factors that can contribute to ovarian cancer risk.
Most high-risk women unaware of their increased ovarian cancer risk
In a 2014 study published in the journal Behavioral Medicine, Dr. Andersen and her colleagues at Fred Hutchinson found that 75% of women at high risk for BRCA mutations were unaware that these gene mutations increase chance of ovarian cancer.
What is more well known, however, is that BRCA1 and BRCA2 increase risk for breast cancer.
Fast facts about ovarian cancer
- Ovarian cancer is most commonly diagnosed among woman aged 63 and older
- Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths among American women
- African-American women are at greater risk for ovarian cancer than white American women.
Surveying 1,900 Seattle-area women ages 35-80 with family histories that suggest BRCA mutations, Dr. Andersen's study found that only about 22% of high-risk women and 7.4% of moderate-risk women were aware that they were at increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.
Given that the respondents were located in an area that has high levels of education and health awareness, as well as good access to genetic counseling and testing, Dr. Andersen hypothesizes that awareness among women in areas with less education and fewer resources may be even worse.So why is this at-risk group largely unaware of their risk for ovarian cancer, which Dr. Andersen describes as being "in many ways, the more frightening cancer"?
Dr. Andersen suggests it could partly be an issue of media representation.
"Sometimes people write about the BRCA mutations as genes for breast and ovarian cancer but often they don't, and even when an article does include ovarian cancer as a risk, often only breast cancer makes the headline," she says.
However, breast cancer is the more common cancer - about 1 in 8 American women develop breast cancer during their lifetime.
Also, while a BRCA1 mutation will increase risk of ovarian cancer by 50%, the increased risk of breast cancer from this mutation is higher, at 87%.
"Even in families with multiple family members affected by BRCA1- or BRCA2-linked cancers, most of the cancers in a family - frequently all of the cancers in the family - have been breast cancer," admits Dr. Andersen. "Of course people pay attention to that."