Monday, April 25, 2011

To screen or not to screen: What to do about ovarian cancer

Not to long ago, my sister-in-law recommended that I ask my lady parts doc to do a blood test for ovarian cancer. What is this test you ask, and why haven't you heard of it? Well, it tests for elevated levels of CA-125, a cancer antigen that is found at higher levels in tumor cells than in higher cells of the body, particularly in ovarian cancer cells. A blood test that can easily measure if you have ovarian cancer cells - sounds like pure genius! Armed with my newly enhanced cancer epidemiology reading skills (one of the perks of having a bagillion degrees), I decided to find out what the deal is with this test, and whether or not I should be getting annoyed at my lady parts doc for not mentioning it.

Turns out, this test, while recommended for those with known ovarian cancer as a means of monitoring, it is a little controversial for screening for us regular gals. Much of this has to do with the sensitivity and specificity of the test - it's ability to find and rule out cancer. So, not everyone with high CA-125 will have ovarian cancer, nor will all those with ovarian cancer have high CA-125. High CA-125 levels are also associated with endometriosis, uterine fibroids, or even regular ol' menstruation.

What's a girl to do? If you know that you are at a higher risk for ovarian cancer (family history, positive BRCA gene), then yeah, go ahead and ask your lady parts doc about getting a test done. Otherwise, the jury is still out about the usefulness in using the CA-125 test as a regular screening tool for ovarian cancer. There are some large screening studies being conducted as we speak, but results will not be in until 2012 - I'll keep you posted as to what they conclude.

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