Taking a blood test every four months could be the best way for women at high risk of ovarian cancer to spot the disease early, according to the results of a trial published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.
Those who are genetically predisposed to the disease are advised to have their ovaries and fallopian tubes removed surgically, but this advice is often ignored. About one in 50 women will develop the disease at some point in their life.
During the trial on 4,348 women, all of whom had an elevated (greater than one in 10) chance of developing the disease, researchers monitored levels of a chemical called CA125 in the blood. An increased level of the chemical, which is produced by ovarian tissue, is an early sign of cancer.
During the three-year trial, 19 cancers were detected, ten of which were at an early stage. In the five years after that, when the regular blood tests had stopped, 18 more cases developed, only one of which was at an early stage.
The results suggest that the screening was more effective at picking up tumours early than merely looking out for symptoms.
Professor Usha Menon, one of the study’s researchers, told the BBC: ‘What we’re trying to do is get women to have surgery. From my point of view, women really struggle with this issue of menopause, and it seems like four-monthly screening is better than symptom awareness.
‘The screening definitely picks up less advanced disease, but we cannot say for sure if we’re saving lives.’
The study is supported by two other recent trials published in Clinical Cancer Research. They found that ovarian cancer also tended to be picked up early when participants were given the CA125 blood test every three months.
You can read about the symptoms of ovarian cancer here.
Ovarian cancer is not only the seventh most common cancer in women worldwide, but is also notoriously difficult to spot in its early stages. There is currently no national screening programme for it in the UK, so women at high risk of developing the disease — about three per cent of women — can sometimes be advised to have pre-emptive surgery and have their ovaries removed to prevent the disease occurring.
This UK trial involved using the current blood test, which tracks a chemical called CA125, but every four months rather than occasionally as is usually the case. This found that cancers were picked up at an earlier stage and so increased the chances of survival.
However, it remains unclear whether this type of screening — although helping to pick up less advanced disease — actually saves more lives long term, so more research needs to be done yet before guidelines change significantly.
Research score: 3/5