No, says Ernest Hawk, vice president and division head of cancer prevention and population sciences at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. First, we don't know if the test actually works to save lives, so it's not yet clear there's a benefit. And there is plenty of evidence that it could harm women. Following up on suspicious findings would result in many unnecessary surgeries, which carry their own risks. As with prostate cancer, we might end up treating cancers that never would have amounted to anything if left alone, Hawk says.
So what's the solution to screening for these two cancers?
First, there is hope that these and other screening tests will be honed to make them more useful. Researchers are looking for other blood tests that could aid in identifying and classifying both ovarian and prostate cancers and are figuring out other ways to use them to best pinpoint cancers that really need treatment.
In the meantime, we can also use tests we do have smartly. Andriole noted that part of the downside in PSA testing is not so much overdiagnosis but overtreatment. "If we have a very candid conversation with people who have very tiny tumors, maybe we could spare them the side effects" of aggressive treatment, he said. Indeed, another study out this week found that "watchful waiting," or closely monitoring low-risk prostate cancer without treating it, can be safe and helps men avoid unnecessary treatment. It's important to discuss the pros and cons of the PSA test with your doctor when it's offered.
With ovarian cancer, no major public health group recommends screening healthy women who have no symptoms. However, there is a far greater awareness that quickly reporting symptoms to a doctor can lead to finding cancer at earlier, more treatable stages. If you are experiencing new and persistent bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly, or urgent or frequent urination, tell your doctor. Even lacking evidence that the tests help healthy women with no complaints, the blood test and ultrasound may become common practice for symptomatic women to ferret out the cause of their problems.
What about other cancer screening tests?
There are plenty that are endorsed by major public health entities, namely Pap smears for cervical cancer, several forms of screening for colon cancer (such as colonoscopy), and mammograms for breast cancer. Others, like screening for lung cancer using CT scans, are still under study. The important thing is to ask your doctor about the pros and cons of any screening test before you undergo it, much as you would ask about any other test.