Ovarian Cancer Screening (PDQ®): Screening - Patient Information [NCI]

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Ovarian Cancer Screening

What is screening?

Screening is looking for cancer before a person has any symptoms. This can help find cancer at an early stage. When abnormal tissue or cancer is found early, it may be easier to treat. By the time symptoms appear, cancer may have begun to spread.

Scientists are trying to better understand which people are more likely to get certain types of cancer. They also study the things we do and the things around us to see if they cause cancer. This information helps doctors recommend who should be screened for cancer, which screening tests should be used, and how often the tests should be done.

It is important to remember that your doctor does not necessarily think you have cancer if he or she suggests a screening test. Screening tests are given when you have no cancer symptoms.

If a screening test result is abnormal, you may need to have more tests done to find out if you have cancer. These are called diagnostic tests.

General Information About Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the ovaries.

The ovaries are a pair of organs in the female reproductive system. They are located in the pelvis, one on each side of the uterus (the hollow, pear-shaped organ where a fetus grows). Each ovary is about the size and shape of an almond. The ovaries produce eggs and female hormones (chemicals that control the way certain cells or organs function).
Anatomy of the female reproductive system; drawing shows the uterus, myometrium (muscular outer layer of the uterus), endometrium (inner lining of the uterus), ovaries, fallopian tubes, cervix, and vagina.
Anatomy of the female reproductive system. The organs in the female reproductive system include the uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes, cervix, and vagina. The uterus has a muscular outer layer called the myometrium and an inner lining called the endometrium.

See the following PDQ summaries for more information about ovarian cancer:

  • Ovarian Cancer Prevention
  • Genetics of Breast and Ovarian Cancer
  • Ovarian Epithelial Cancer Treatment
  • Ovarian Germ Cell Tumors Treatment
  • Ovarian Low Malignant Potential Tumors Treatment

In the United States, ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer death in women.

Ovarian cancer is also the leading cause of death from cancer of the female reproductive system. Since 1992, the number of new cases of ovarian cancer has gone down slightly. The number of deaths from ovarian cancer has slightly decreased since 2002.

Different factors increase or decrease the risk of ovarian cancer.

Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Anything that decreases your chance of getting a disease is called a protective factor

For information about risk factors and protective factors for ovarian cancer, see the Ovarian Cancer Prevention summary.

Ovarian Cancer Screening

Tests are used to screen for different types of cancer.

Some screening tests are used because they have been shown to be helpful both in finding cancers early and in decreasing the chance of dying from these cancers. Other tests are used because they have been shown to find cancer in some people; however, it has not been proven in clinical trials that use of these tests will decrease the risk of dying from cancer.

Scientists study screening tests to find those with the fewest risks and most benefits. Cancer screening trials also are meant to show whether early detection (finding cancer before it causes symptoms) decreases a person's chance of dying from the disease. For some types of cancer, finding and treating the disease at an early stage may result in a better chance of recovery.

There is no standard or routine screening test for ovarian cancer.

Screening for ovarian cancer has not been proven to decrease the death rate from the disease.

Screening for ovarian cancer is under study and there are screening clinical trials taking place in many parts of the country. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Tests that may detect (find) ovarian cancer are being studied:

Pelvic exam

A pelvic exam is an exam of the vagina, cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, and rectum. The doctor or nurse inserts one or two lubricated, gloved fingers of one hand into the vagina and the other hand is placed over the lower abdomen to feel the size, shape, and position of the uterus and ovaries. A speculum is also inserted into the vagina and the doctor or nurse looks at the vagina and cervix for signs of disease.
Pelvic exam; drawing shows a side view of the female reproductive anatomy during a pelvic exam. The uterus, left fallopian tube, left ovary, cervix, vagina, bladder, and rectum are shown. Two gloved fingers of one hand of the doctor or nurse are shown inserted into the vagina, while the other hand is shown pressing on the lower abdomen. The inset shows a woman covered by a drape on an exam table with her legs apart and her feet in stirrups.
Pelvic exam. A doctor or nurse inserts one or two lubricated, gloved fingers of one hand into the vagina and presses on the lower abdomen with the other hand. This is done to feel the size, shape, and position of the uterus and ovaries. The vagina, cervix, fallopian tubes, and rectum are also checked.

Ovarian cancer is usually advanced when first found by a pelvic exam.

Transvaginal ultrasound

Transvaginal ultrasound (TVU) is a procedure used to examine the vagina, uterus, fallopian tubes, and bladder. An ultrasound transducer (probe) is inserted into the vagina and used to bounce high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram.
Transvaginal ultrasound; drawing shows a side view of the female reproductive anatomy during a transvaginal ultrasound procedure. An ultrasound probe (a device that makes sound waves that bounce off tissues inside the body) is shown inserted into the vagina. The bladder, uterus, right fallopian tube, and right ovary are also shown. The inset shows the diagnostic sonographer (a person trained to perform ultrasound procedures) examining a woman on a table, and a computer screen shows an image of the patient's internal tissues.
Transvaginal ultrasound. An ultrasound probe connected to a computer is inserted into the vagina and is gently moved to show different organs. The probe bounces sound waves off internal organs and tissues to make echoes that form a sonogram (computer picture).

CA-125 assay

A CA 125 assay is a test that measures the level of CA 125 in the blood. CA 125 is a substance released by cells into the bloodstream. An increased CA-125 level is sometimes a sign of certain types of cancer, including ovarian cancer, or other conditions.

Scientists at the National Cancer Institute studied the combination of using TVU and CA-125 levels as a way to screen for and prevent deaths from ovarian cancer. The results of this study showed no decrease in deaths from ovarian cancer.

Risks of Ovarian Cancer Screening

Screening tests have risks.

Decisions about screening tests can be difficult. Not all screening tests are helpful and most have risks. Before having any screening test, you may want to talk about the test with your doctor. It is important to know the risks of the test and whether it has been proven to reduce the risk of dying from cancer.

The risks of ovarian screening tests include the following:

Finding ovarian cancer may not improve health or help a woman live longer.

Screening may not improve your health or help you live longer if you have advanced ovarian cancer or if it has already spread to other places in your body.

Some cancers never cause symptoms or become life-threatening, but if found by a screening test, the cancer may be treated. It is not known if treatment of these cancers would help you live longer than if no treatment were given, and treatments for cancer may have serious side effects.

False-negative test results can occur.

Screening test results may appear to be normal even though ovarian cancer is present. A woman who receives a false-negative test result (one that shows there is no cancer when there really is) may delay seeking medical care even if she has symptoms.

False-positive test results can occur.

Screening test results may appear to be abnormal even though no cancer is present. A false-positive test result (one that shows there is cancer when there really isn't) can cause anxiety and is usually followed by more tests (such as a laparoscopy or a laparotomy to see if cancer is present), which also have risks. Complications from tests to diagnose ovarian cancer include infection, blood loss, bowel injury, and heart and blood vessel problems. An unnecessary oophorectomy (removal of one or both ovaries) may also result.

Your doctor can advise you about your risk for ovarian cancer and your need for screening tests.

Changes to This Summary (08 / 08 / 2013)

The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.

Changes were made to this summary to match those made to the health professional version.

About This PDQ Summary

About PDQ

Physician Data Query (PDQ) is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries come in two versions. The health professional versions have detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions have cancer information that is accurate and up to date and most versions are also available in Spanish.

PDQ is a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH is the federal government's center of biomedical research. The PDQ summaries are based on an independent review of the medical literature. They are not policy statements of the NCI or the NIH.

Purpose of This Summary

This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about ovarian cancer screening. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.

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Editorial Boards write the PDQ cancer information summaries and keep them up to date. These Boards are made up of experts in cancer treatment and other specialties related to cancer. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made when there is new information. The date on each summary ("Date Last Modified") is the date of the most recent change.

The information in this patient summary was taken from the health professional version, which is reviewed regularly and updated as needed, by the PDQ Screening and Prevention Editorial Board.

Clinical Trial Information

A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Clinical trials are listed in PDQ and can be found online at NCI's Web site. Many cancer doctors who take part in clinical trials are also listed in PDQ. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).

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National Cancer Institute: PDQ® Ovarian Cancer Screening. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Date last modified <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: http://cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/screening/ovarian/Patient. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>.

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Last Revised: 2013-08-08


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