Advancements in Predicting Ovarian Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on July 19, 2022
5 min read

Ovarian cancer is often called the “disease that whispers.” That’s because finding ovarian cancer early can be a challenge. Odds are you might overlook the symptoms or have none until the cancer is advanced. In fact, only 2 out of 10 cases are found during the early stages. Most people tend to have symptoms during the later stages when the cancer has already spread. But by then, the cancer is harder to treat and your chances of survival are lower.

Research shows that if ovarian cancer is found early, it can make a big difference. More than 90% of people with stage I ovarian cancer can live longer than 5 years after diagnosis.

While experts are constantly looking for better ways to screen and test for ovarian cancer, they haven’t had much success. And most ovarian tumors are difficult or impossible to feel during your annual pelvic exam. But in recent years, cancer medicine, with the help of cutting-edge technology, has made some progress in finding newer ways to catch ovarian cancer early.

There’s no specific, simple, or reliable test or exam to screen you for ovarian cancer during the early stages. It's also hard to find cells that are likely to become cancerous, especially if you’re at high risk for it.

The best approach is to pay close attention to any changes in your body and watch out for any early warning signs. Common symptoms of ovarian cancer include:

  • Bloating or swelling
  • Quickly feeling full when you eat
  • Weight loss
  • Discomfort in your pelvic area
  • Fatigue
  • Back pain
  • Constipation
  • A frequent need to pee

If you have changes that worry you, talk to your doctor. If your doctor thinks you might have ovarian cancer, there are few exams or tests they can run.

Genetic testing. If you have a family history of ovarian cancer, your doctor will run genetic blood tests to check for specific gene mutations like BRCA1 or BRCA2. Lynch syndrome is another mutation that can increase your odds for it. It’s a type of genetic condition that increases your risk for colon cancer and other types of cancer.

Because BRCA1 and BRCA2 are linked with several types of cancer, the tests may cost you a lot of time and money.

If you test positive for these genes, your doctor will guide you through the next steps. If your risk is high, they may suggest surgically removing your ovaries to lower your odds. This procedure is called prophylactic oophorectomy.

TVUS (transvaginal ultrasound). This test uses sound waves to scan your uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries. An ultrasound professional or your doctor will put a wand-like stick called the transducer into your vagina. During the exam, they’ll move it physically close to the ovaries to check for masses. The wand produces sound waves that will bounce back if there are abnormal growths or possible tumors. But the wand can’t tell you if the mass is cancerous or not. And most growths found during the screening turn out to be non-cancerous.

CA-125 blood test. It’s a blood test that checks for levels of a protein called CA-125. If you have ovarian cancer, you’ll most likely have high levels of it. But it’s also possible to have high levels of CA-125 if you have other conditions like endometriosis and pelvic inflammatory disease. To confirm what’s causing it, your doctor might repeat the test or do a transvaginal ultrasound test, too.

Doctors also use this test to see if ovarian cancer treatments are working to shrink or get rid of the tumor. If it is, the CA-125 levels will go down.

Surgery. If your doctor thinks you have a growth or mass on your ovaries, they will surgically remove a piece of tissue from the mass. This is called a biopsy. They’ll send this piece to the lab to test if it contains cancerous cells. To get a sample of the tissue of your ovary, your doctor may do a laparoscopy or a robotic surgery.

Experts are constantly looking to merge medicine and biomedical technology to develop more reliable ways to find ovarian cancer early. While some of these methods are still in early stages of being tested, they show some promise.

Lab-on-a-chip. Researchers at The University of Kansas Cancer Center have observed that ovarian tumor cells release small fluid-filled sacs called exosomes (a type of vesicle) in your blood or other bodily fluids. If you have this, it may be a sign that cancerous cells are growing in your fallopian tube.

And research shows that earliest forms of ovarian cancer cells can sometimes stay in fallopian tubes for years before they “shed” or migrate over to the ovaries.

Experts can check for exosomes by taking a few drops of your blood and putting it on a chip that’s as big as the one you find on your credit card. This technology is called lab-on-a-chip.

If your doctor finds ovarian cancer cells in your fallopian tube, this can greatly improve your chances of survival and limit your need for surgery. Doctors can remove just your fallopian tube and leave your ovaries intact. This can help you save your eggs and avoid early menopause. Finding ovarian cancer through this test will also help you skip surgery to find tumors.

Research is ongoing, and experts need more information to see if it’s a reliable test.

DNA methylation of cervical cells. In one recent study, researchers found that if your cell follows a certain pattern of chemical reaction during DNA cell division (called DNA methylation), you’re more likely to have ovarian cancer. To test this out, they decided to test cervical cell samples from 242 women with ovarian cancer and 869 women without cancer. That’s because cervical cells tend to have a similar pattern of DNA changes during cell division.

Your doctor will usually scrape and collect cervical cells during a Pap test to look for cervical cancer. Turns out, they were able to correctly find out whether ovarian cancer was there or if someone was at risk to develop it in about 75% of the cell samples.

Experts note that there needs to be more research to use these options regularly. But as medicine and technology improve, the goal is to find better ways and new tools to detect ovarian cancer early.