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June 11, 2007

They Told me I was Pregnant, But it was Ovarian Cancer

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OVARIAN CANCER: WHAT’S YOUR RISK?
One in 58 women will get ovarian cancer—that’s about 25,000 a year. So far, dietary habits and exercise haven’t been shown to have much influence, but other factors do.

WHAT RAISES YOUR RISK:
• A mother, sister, or grandmother who has or had breast or ovarian cancer. Women with a family history are two to three times more prone to get the disease than other women are. • Getting your first period before age 12. • A history of endometriosis.

WHAT LOWERS YOUR RISK:
• Being young. Most women with ovarian cancer are age 60-plus. • Having children—especially after age 35, according to a recent study—and breastfeeding them. • Taking the Pill. After five years of use, ovarian-cancer risk drops by 50 percent.

THE NEW SCREENING TESTS: CAN YOU TRUST THEM?
Currently, there is no standard screening test for ovarian cancer. (The Pap test checks for cervical cancer, not ovarian.) But some tests are currently being—or will soon be—marketed to women. They sound like a good idea, but there are reasons to be wary:

1. CA 125 test
Contrary to widely circulated emails, testing your blood for the “tumor marker” CA 125 has not been proven to accurately screen for ovarian cancer, says Andrew Berchuck, M.D., professor of gynecological oncology at Duke University Medical Center. Used to detect recurrence in women who have already had the disease, it yields too many false positives (things other than ovarian cancer can elevate levels of this marker) and false negatives (some research suggests it misses as many as half of all early tumors) to be an effective screening tool. Researchers are aiming to improve the test.

2. OvaCheck
This test may be on the market by the time you read this, but it brings with it serious controversy. OvaCheck uses a breakthrough technology, called proteomics, in which a computer seeks telltale cancer-protein patterns in your blood. In small studies, these “fingerprints” found most early cases of the disease. But the company that makes OvaCheck may sell the test without FDA approval. “We are excited about the premise of proteomics but concerned about a company trying to rush to market before it is fully tested and has proved that it can actually save lives,” says Debbie Saslow, Ph.D., director of breast and gynecologic cancer at the American Cancer Society. False positives are a risk, and could lead thousands of women to unnecessary follow-up procedures, including surgery. Even if this test becomes available, only women with a first-degree relative with breast or ovarian cancer should even consider it, and even then, only after a consultation with a doctor.


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