Routine Ovarian Cancer Screening Not Beneficial

By OBOS Common Medical Conditions Contributors |
UPDATED: Jul 15, 2019

There are currently two methods of screening for ovarian cancer: transvaginal ultrasonography and serum CA-125 testing. Unfortunately, neither method is effective in reducing ovarian cancer deaths in women who are not at increased risk of ovarian cancer.

In 2018, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force reaffirmed its previous recommendation that most women won’t benefit from routine ovarian cancer screening. The agency looked at recent evidence to see if anything new has been published that might alter its 2012 recommendation and concluded, once again, that annual screening is likely to do more harm than good in women who do not have any symptoms, genetic markers, or other increased ovarian cancer risk factors.

For many women, these tests will produce incorrect results suggesting cancer, causing women to undergo unnecessary surgery in order to get confirmation. Surgery can include the removal of a healthy ovary and associated harms such as infections or blood clots.

The recommendation does not apply to women with known genetic mutations that increase their risk for ovarian cancer. If you are at high risk, you may benefit from ovarian cancer screening.

Groups Agree with Recommendation, But Screening Still Common

The Task Force is not alone in its findings. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Cancer Society, and the American Academy of Family Physicians do not recommend screening for ovarian cancer in asymptomatic women. 

Despite the recommendations against routine screening, many physicians still provide it, likely misunderstanding its utility. According to the The New York Times, based on a 2008 survey:

But some doctors continue to recommend screening anyway, and patients request it, clinging to the mistaken belief that the tests can somehow find the disease early enough to save lives. A report published in February in Annals of Internal Medicine, based on a survey of 1,088 doctors, said that about a third of them believed the screening was effective and that many routinely offered it to patients.

Research on Screening Continues

The Task Force emphasizes that more research is needed to find better methods of screening: “Given that most cases of ovarian cancer are diagnosed at later stages, when associated mortality is high, further research is needed to identify new screening strategies that could accurately detect ovarian cancer early, at a point when outcomes could be improved.”

CDC Campaign Advises Women to Pay Attention to Physical Changes

The most common symptoms of ovarian cancer include bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, trouble eating or feeling full quickly, and urinary symptoms, such as frequent or urgent urination. These symptoms could apply to a range of health issues — most of the time, they’re caused by other, less serious health issues.

The Centers for Disease Control  has created an Inside Knowledge campaign to raise awareness about gynecologic cancers. The campaigns includes fact sheets and posters in Spanish and English, and radio and television public service ads featuring women discussing the symptoms that led them to visit their health care provider. The ad below features writer and performer Jenny Allen.