Combination of symptom screening and blood test improves ovarian cancer diagnosis

In collaboration with the Press Association

US scientists have found that early detection of ovarian cancer can be improved by using a combination of a questionnaire and a simple blood test.

When used on its own, the CA125 ovarian cancer blood test can detect around 60 per cent of women with early-stage ovarian cancer and 80 per cent of those with late-stage disease, by looking for the presence of a protein made by some ovarian cancer cells.

A four-question symptom screening questionnaire which asks about typical symptoms of ovarian cancer such as abdominal or pelvic pain, difficulty eating, bloating or feeling full quickly achieves a similar success rate when used alone.

- Dr Robyn Andersen, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre

However, scientists at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre have discovered that when used together, the questionnaire and blood test increase early detection rates to more than 80 per cent, while late-stage detection rates increase to more than 95 per cent.

Lead author Dr Robyn Andersen, an associate member of the centre's Public Health Sciences Division, said that the most exciting aspect of the study, published in the journal Cancer, is the increase in the detection of early-stage disease, as cure rates are significantly higher - around 70 to 90 per cent - if the disease is detected before it has spread from the ovaries.

"This research suggests that if a woman has one or more symptoms that are new for her, having begun within the past year, and if the symptoms happen nearly daily or at least 12 times a month, that may well be a signal to go in and discuss those symptoms with her doctor," Dr Andersen advised.

"It's probably not going to be ovarian cancer, just as most breast lumps are not breast cancer, but it's still a sign that it might be worth checking with her doctor to see if a CA125 blood test and trans-vaginal ultrasound may be appropriate."

The researchers are now conducting a pilot study to determine whether a symptom-screening index developed by co-author Dr Barbara Goff in 2006 would be a valuable addition to women's routine medical checks.

In the UK, Cancer Research UK is helping to fund a large trial, UKCTOCS, to test whether widespread screening for ovarian cancer by measuring CA125 levels, or ultrasound scans, can save lives. The trial has recruited 200,000 women across the country, although the results will not be known for several years.