Last month the largest-ever study of ovarian cancer screening found that screening healthy women does more harm than good. But if you don’t read medical journals, you probably didn’t hear this disappointing news, so we’re writing now to share the research results with you. They can help you avoid spending money on useless tests and maybe even avoid unnecessary surgery.
Remember that email message urging you to get a “simple blood test” that could detect an otherwise hard-to-diagnose cancer? The personal details varied from version to version, but the gist of the message was always the same – the writer had been diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer and had slim odds of survival. She urged other women to avoid her fate by getting screened every year with a CA-125 blood test, which she said could catch the cancer when it was early and still treatable.
Personal stories often provide good lessons for others to follow, but in this case, NWHN disagreed. We knew that the test, which is very useful for patients who have already been diagnosed with cancer, hadn’t been proven to be a good screening tool. And we knew that screening could actually cause more harm than good in some cases, and we feared this might be one of them. We urged women not to get the CA-125 blood test, and instead, encouraged women to volunteer for a study that would determine whether or not it was a good screening tool. 78,000 women volunteered, and now, nearly 20 years later, we know that using the CA-125 blood test to screen for ovarian cancer is a bad idea – it doesn’t prevent women from dying of the disease, and even worse, it actually causes harm.
In the end, the study showed no lives were saved, but 1080 women had unnecessary surgery to follow up on false alarms and over 15 percent of the time, that unnecessary surgery caused serious complications, like perforation of the bowel.
So what should you do if you’re worried about ovarian cancer? If you have a family history of ovarian cancer, consider talking with a genetic counselor. To learn more about prevention, you can read NWHN’s article on reducing dietary fat to reduce your risk. If you’ve been thinking about getting a CA-125 test, or have already been getting them – stop. Don’t waste your money and don’t risk your health for no benefit. And if you want to help make things better in the future, use some of the money you’ll save by not getting the blood tests to support NWHN’s advocacy for more research into screening techniques that work.
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