Screening is a method of detecting cancer before a person begins to experience symptoms. At present, there is no reliable screening method for ovarian cancer.

Early detection and treatment of ovarian cancer can improve outcomes for people living with the disease.

A person should be aware of their risk factors for developing the disease and pay attention to any possible symptoms.

In this article, we describe the current methods of screening for ovarian cancer, the risk factors for developing the disease, and the symptoms to which a person should pay attention. We also offer advice on when to see a doctor.

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Screening tests and diagnostic tests are different types of tests. A screening test checks for disease prior to any symptoms.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are currently no simple and reliable ways to screen for ovarian cancer. The two most common tests for the disease are a transvaginal ultrasound and a CA-125 blood test.

Transvaginal ultrasound

This imaging test can help identify tumors in the reproductive organs. However, it only reveals whether a tumor is present, not whether it is cancerous.

CA-125 blood test

This blood test checks for cancer antigen 125 (CA-125) levels, which are elevated in people with ovarian cancer. This blood test also helps determine whether an ovarian cancer treatment is working, as CA-125 will usually decrease if the treatment is effective.

However, individuals with endometriosis or pelvic inflammatory disease can also have elevated levels of CA-125, making the test an unreliable way to screen for ovarian cancer.

It is important to note that a Pap smear screens for cervical cancer, not ovarian cancer.

As there is no way to screen for ovarian cancer, it is important to recognize and pay attention to the warning signs.

Diagnostic tests aim to determine the cause of the symptoms a person is already experiencing.

If a person is at high risk of developing ovarian cancer, their doctor may perform diagnostic tests for the disease. These might include:

  • Complete blood count: This blood test can show whether any physiological markers are outside the standard range.
  • Rectovaginal pelvic exam: During this physical examination of the female reproductive system, a doctor will palpate the ovaries to check their size, shape, and consistency. Although this exam can help doctors detect some cancers, it is still difficult for them to detect early ovarian tumors.
  • Biopsy: This procedure involves taking a small amount of ovarian tissue for further examination.

A biopsy is the only test that can determine whether tissue is cancerous. As a result, doctors will always need to use this test to make a diagnosis.

Benefits of diagnostic tests

There are currently no reliable screening tests for ovarian cancer. However, a person who is concerned about ovarian cancer can talk with a doctor about their individual risk of developing the disease.

If the doctor determines that an individual is at high risk, they may perform diagnostic tests. Such tests can help detect ovarian cancer, allowing a person to begin any appropriate treatment. Doctors may also refer people for genetic counseling to get a better understanding of their personal risk of cancer.

Otherwise, a person should pay attention to any symptoms that may be associated with ovarian cancer. If any new symptoms appear, they should discuss them with a gynecologist.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that in 2022, about 19,880 females will receive a diagnosis of ovarian cancer, and approximately 12,810 females will die from the disease.

According to the ACS, only about 20% of people receive a diagnosis of ovarian cancer during the early stage of the disease. Of these individuals, 94% will live longer than 5 years after the diagnosis.

Although medical experts do not fully understand the cause of ovarian cancer, they have identified certain risk factors for the disease. These include:

  • Being 40 years of age or older: Half of all ovarian cancers occur in females 63 years of age and older.
  • Having excess body weight: Those with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater have an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.
  • Having a family history of ovarian cancer: Having a close relative with ovarian cancer significantly increases a person’s likelihood of developing the disease. However, it does not necessarily mean that this will happen.
  • Having children later in life: Having children after the age of 35 years increases the risk of ovarian cancer.
  • Never carrying a pregnancy to term: People who have never had a full-term pregnancy may have a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer.
  • Using fertility treatment: In vitro fertilization appears to increase the risk of certain ovarian tumors.
  • Taking hormone therapy after menopause: Individuals who take estrogen with or without progesterone following menopause have an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer compared with those who have never used hormones.

Other risk factors include:

  • lack of physical activity
  • nonnutritious diet
  • high alcohol or caffeine intake
  • smoking
  • pelvic inflammatory disease
  • BRCA gene mutations

It can be easy to overlook the early symptoms of ovarian cancer, as they can mimic those of other common illnesses.

According to the ACS, the early symptoms of ovarian cancer include:

Other possible symptoms include:

Anyone who experiences any of these symptoms more than 12 times a month should seek medical advice. They should also do this if any of the symptoms are severe.

Individuals who start to experience any of the possible symptoms of ovarian cancer on most days for more than a few weeks should consider seeking a diagnosis.

People should also speak with a doctor if they are concerned about developing ovarian cancer and have risk factors for the disease.

There are currently no reliable screening tests for ovarian cancer. As such, anyone who experiences symptoms or has risk factors for the disease should consult a doctor for further advice and testing.

People should also pay attention to bodily changes that could be a sign of ovarian cancer, such as frequent or persistent bloating, abdominal pain, and a frequent or urgent need to urinate. Although these symptoms may be due to other illnesses, it is best to speak with a doctor to rule out ovarian cancer.