Startling findings - ovarian cancer screening doesn't save lives and not all ovarian cancers kill or need treatment

Thursday, June 09, 2011 by: S. L. Baker, features writer
Tags: ovarian cancer, screenings, health news

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(NaturalNews) There's no denying ovarian cancer is usually a terrible disease. A stealthy malignancy, it's often misdiagnosed as indigestion and by the time ovarian cancer is actually discovered by a doctor, the disease may have spread extensively. According to the National Institutes of Health, ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cancer among women and causes more deaths than any other type of female reproductive cancer.

So it might seem like a potentially life-saving move to have all women 55 and older -- the age group that suffers most often from this form of cancer -- screened regularly for the disease with transvaginal ultrasound and the blood test that measures serum cancer antigen 125 (CA-125).

These are expensive tests but, if they could save the lives of women by pinpointing ovarian malignancies early, they are certainly worth it. After all, the screening tests should save countless lives, right?

Unfortunately, according to new research headed by Saundra S. Buys, M.D., of the University of Utah Health Sciences Center, Salt Lake City, that assumption is wrong. What's more, the tests can lead to unneeded surgeries and serious complications in women who actually have no cancer at all.

But the study came to another surprising -- and positive -- conclusion, too. It turns out that not all ovarian cancers may be deadly or even need treatment.

For the study, which was just published in the June 8 issue of JAMA, Dr. Buys and her team investigated studies of almost 80,000 women to compare outcomes between women who received standard health care with no specific testing for ovarian cancer, unless they had overt symptoms, and those who received regular, ovarian cancer screening. The results showed no reduced risk of death from ovarian cancer for those aggressively screened for the disease when compared to women who received usual care.

However, the study did reveal a big difference between the health outcomes of the women in the two groups. Those receiving the cancer screenings had an alarming increase in invasive medical procedures and associated harms as a result of being screened.

In all, there were 3,285 women who turned out to have false-positive results. And of these, over 1,000 were subjected to surgery (32.9 had their ovaries removed as part of the diagnostic workup). Among these 1,080 women, 163 (15 percent) experienced a total of 222 distinct major complications.

Bottom line: the research team concluded there is no evidence from clinical trials to support regular screening for ovarian cancer at this time. The authors of the study also stated that even an optimized program of annual screening may be insufficient to detect cancers early enough to prevent deaths.

"Evidence from modeling suggests that aggressive cancers progress rapidly through the early stages, limiting the ability to detect these cancers with yearly screening," they stated in the paper. "We conclude that annual screening for ovarian cancer...with simultaneous CA-125 and transvaginal ultrasound does not reduce disease-specific mortality in women at average risk for ovarian cancer but does increase invasive medical procedures and associated harms."

And the researchers ended with this startling news. Apparently, not all ovarian cancers detected may be deadly at all or even need treatment: "In contrast, more ovarian cancers were diagnosed in the screened group than in the usual care group (212 vs. 176), suggesting that some of the additional cancers detected by screenings were not clinically important and, if left undetected, may never have caused any symptoms or affected the women during their life-times (i.e., overdiagnosis)."

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