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Ovarian cancer screening saves lives

By Dr. John R. van Nagell

September is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. This year, there will be more than 21,000 new cases of ovarian cancer diagnosed in the United States, and 14,600 women will die of this disease.

Since many women with early ovarian cancer may not have symptoms, a number of centers are conducting research to determine if regular screening of women without symptoms can identify ovarian cancer at an earlier stage.  

The University of Kentucky's Markey Cancer Center is one such center. As part of this research, the UK Ovarian Cancer Screening Research Program has provided free screening to more than 32,000 women. The research has focused on asymptomatic women over age 50, or over age 25 if there is a documented family history of ovarian cancer. The survival rate of women whose ovarian cancer was detected by screening is significantly higher than women who did not have screening.  

Transvaginal sonography (TVS) is a technique that uses ultrasound waves to generate an image of both ovaries. It is painless and takes about five to 10 minutes to perform.  

This technology can identify even small changes in ovarian size or internal structure.  

This test is considered abnormal if the ovary is more than twice its normal size or if it contains a solid area or papillary projection suspicious for an ovarian tumor.  

TVS  is far more accurate in detecting an early change in ovarian size or substance than is a pelvic examination.  A recent study from the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center published in the journal Cancer, led by UK gynecologic oncologist Dr. Ed Pavlik, has indicated that TVS is helpful in detecting ovarian cancer at an earlier and more curable stage. 

Recent evidence suggests that certain symptoms may be associated with ovarian cancer. Specifically, bloating, pelvic pressure, pelvic pain, and a feeling of fullness after eating were found to occur more commonly in patients with ovarian cancer than in other women.

The combination of TVS and symptoms analysis was found to be effective in differentiating women with ovarian cancer from those with benign disease.   


ymptoms are most often indicative of ovarian cancer if they occur with a sudden onset and are noted at least 12 times per month. Women with these symptoms should consult their physician and undergo a complete physical and pelvic examination.  

When a woman has been told that she has an ovarian tumor which will need surgical removal, it is probably wise to seek a second opinion from a board-certified gynecologic oncologist.  These physicians have received special training in ovarian cancer treatment including surgery and chemotherapy.  

Numerous studies have shown that ovarian cancer patients treated by gynecologic oncologists have the best outcome.  Optimal treatment depends upon the stage and type of ovarian cancer diagnosed, but usually involves surgical removal of the cancer followed by some form of combination chemotherapy.  For more information concerning the latest treatment protocols for patients with ovarian cancer, please call (859) 323-5553.

Dr. John R. van Nagell is director of gynecologic oncology at the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center and heads the UK Ovarian Cancer Screening Program.