Written by: Lauryn Feil
Reviewed by: Yvette Williams-Brown, MD
Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cancer in women and the most common cause of gynecological cancer-related deaths, but there is not a reliable or standardized screening to prevent or catch ovarian cancer early. MD Anderson and other study sites, including UT Health Austin, are participating in a clinical trial to determine if a blood test could help detect ovarian cancer early in women who are post-menopausal.
“Unless a woman has a family history of ovarian cancer or the BRCA mutation, right now there isn’t a reliable screening to test for early signs of ovarian cancer in the general population of women,” says Yvette Williams-Brown, MD, gynecologist/oncologist for the Livestrong Cancer Institutes at UT Health Austin and principal study investigator for this site. “The purpose of this study is to see if a blood test, known as the CA-125 test, can help us detect ovarian cancer early in post-menopausal women, which is the population at the highest risk for developing ovarian cancer.”
The CA 125 blood test measures the concentration of the CA 125 glycoprotein antigen that is produced on the surface of cells and released into the bloodstream. The level of this antigen is typically higher than normal in women with ovarian cancer. However, it can also be higher than normal in pregnancy, endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, menstruation, acute and chronic hepatitis, and non-cancerous diseases.
The antigen levels from the blood sample along with patient information are put through an algorithm that determines potential next steps for patients who may be flagged as high-risk for ovarian cancer.
“The algorithm helps us triage patients into three categories. One being ‘low risk’ with a typical follow-up screening in one year. Two being ‘intermediate risk,’ where we would do a follow-up blood draw in three months. And three being ‘concerning or high risk,’ for which we may recommend the patient receive a transvaginal ultrasound so we can get a better idea of what the ovaries look like,” says Dr. Williams-Brown.
A transvaginal ultrasound, while not as invasive as surgery, can still be a discomforting experience for women so, only patients who pose a higher risk of developing or having ovarian cancer are sent to receive that screening. Surgery is the only method available to confirm ovarian cancer for certain.
Because of the way ovarian cancer spreads, it can be very difficult to detect early. Symptoms can also be similar to those of other conditions or simply common bodily experiences. The three most common symptoms that tend to be present in women with ovarian cancer are persistent abdominal or pelvic pain, bloating or fullness and urinary frequency.
“As it can be difficult to diagnose early, oftentimes ovarian cancer is caught at stage three or four where curing it can be much more difficult. If we can find a way to catch it early we could increase more favorable outcomes,” says Dr. Williams-Brown.
The clinical trial is currently open and free to anyone who meets the criteria below:
- Women between the ages of 50-74
- Post-menopausal (no period for one year or longer)
- No cancer treatment in the past 12 months
- Have at least one ovary
- Have a healthcare provider (someone that provides your annual well-woman exam, whom we can send follow-up results to)
By participating in this study, patients are helping to advance medical science and help others who may battle cancer in the future.