Early detection and diagnosis of any disease is important; for cancers – especially those that have a high mortality rate – it is essential. Unfortunately, for too many cancers, there are no clear symptoms nor is there a test to discover early-stage disease. As a cancer progresses to later stages, it becomes that much harder to treat, or eradicate.
Ovarian cancer is a prime example. There has been no test to discover early-stage ovarian cancer. In most cases, it is not found until there are some symptoms, and even then, it’s usually discovered at Stage III, or higher. Treatment is difficult and generally only extends life by a few years.
On the other hand, if a woman is diagnosed with Stage I or Stage IIA ovarian cancer, she has a 90 percent survival rate. The trick is to find it at that early stage. Doctors have used screening methods such as pelvic examinations, ultrasounds and CA-125 blood tests for years, but they are considered very unreliable.
But there’s potentially good news coming out of Atlanta. The Georgia Institute of Technology has been collaborating with the Ovarian Cancer Institute for years to develop a way to detect ovarian cancer at an early stage. It now appears, according to a report in Nature’s online journal “Scientific Reports,” that, using a blood sample, a mass spectrometer and a computer algorithm, researchers and lab technicians can now detect specific metabolite levels that indicate ovarian cancer.”
In the Atlanta ovarian cancer world, Dr. Benedict Benigno, founder and CEO of the Ovarian Cancer Institute and director of gynecologic oncology at Northside Hospital in Atlanta, is held in high regard. Although he’s not performing surgeries anymore, he does see patients and is a frequent speaker at programs to raise awareness of ovarian cancer and the BRCA gene defects that increase the chances of breast and ovarian cancers.
Benigno has been working on this discovery for years. “By the time ovarian cancer is detected, it’s usually too late,” he said in a statement. Noting the inadequacies of current screening methods, he said, “It was so frustrating to encounter newly diagnosed patients, who had experienced symptoms for only a few weeks, in such advanced stages. We are thrilled to provide women with such a highly accurate test.”
In addition to this early detection test, Georgia Tech and the Ovarian Cancer Institute have created one of the world’s largest ovarian cancer tissue and serum banks.
The same week of this perhaps historical announcement, researchers from the American Cancer Society reported that there has been a substantial increase in women under the age of 26 who have received a diagnosis of early-stage cervical cancer. Does this point to a surge in cervical cancer? Probably not.
A simple test, known as the Pap’s smear, has been available for years for early detection of cervical cancer. Most women have the test once a year, with routine exams. But, according to researchers, until recently, young women haven’t gone to gynecologists, so have not been tested. In fact, according to the analysis of their research, the sharp rise in early cervical cancer detection among women aged 21 to 25 can probably be linked to the Affordable Care Act which has allowed children under age 26 to stay on their parents’ health insurance policies, thereby encouraging those women to have routine annual checks.
The bottom line – for all cancers — is that early detection is key. Early diagnosis improves the prospects for survival because treatment is more effective and the chance of remission is higher. So, for a variety of reasons, women ought to breathe a little easier now, and remember to get regular gynecological checkups.