Most Women (Still) Don’t Need Ovarian Cancer Screenings

Ovarian cancer screening not recommended by USPSTF

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Cancer that invades the ovaries usually doesn’t have symptoms. Screening for the disease has involved ultrasound and measuring for a molecule that’s present when the disease is. For any screening to be useful, though, it must be proven to save lives.

The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) still recommends against screening women for ovarian cancer. The group argues the harms of such tests outweigh the benefits.

This recommendation does not include women who are at high risk for the disease.

"Talk to your doctor about cancer screenings."

September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. The disease strikes just over 22,000 American women and 15,500 women succumb to it every year. This cancer affects about 13 out of every 100,000 women in the U.S.

Testing healthy women with no symptoms involves what’s called a transvaginal ultrasound. This test that uses sound waves looks at the ovaries through a probe placed in the vagina. Blood tests are also given to look for a cancer marker called cancer antigen–125.

The problem is these tests often result in false positives. That is, the tests suggest something is wrong, but more testing finds no cancer.

These additional tests may include major surgery which ends up having been unnecessary.

The USPSTF originally recommended against ovarian cancer screening in 2004. The group of health professionals has evaluated studies conducted since that time to confirm this recommendation.

The studies found that the screenings did not lower the number of deaths caused by ovarian cancer. The research also shows that the harms (more testing, surgery, false-positive results) of the screening outweigh the benefits.

This recommendation does not relate to women who are at high risk for ovarian cancer because of genetic mutations - including BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes - they have inherited or family history. 

Other women who are at high risk of ovarian cancer include those who:

  • Have at least 2 family members with ovarian cancer or a combination of breast and ovarian cancer
  • Are of Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish descent
  • Have relatives on the same side of the family with either breast or ovarian cancer; this includes one first-degree relative (sister, daughter, mother) or two second-degree relatives (aunt, niece, grandmother or half-sister).

Women who are at high risk of ovarian cancer should talk to their doctors about genetic testing they may want to have to further understand their risks.

These latest recommendations were published September 11 in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

No funding information or financial disclosures were made public.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
September 12, 2012
Last Updated:
September 14, 2012