Should You Be Screened for Ovarian Cancer?

blood in vial
Andrew Brookes/Cultura/Getty Images

For decades, ovarian cancer has been touted as the "silent killer" because of the disease's assumed lack of early warning signs and symptoms. Women are often diagnosed at later stages, increasing the need for effective ovarian cancer screening. Screening tests are available but aren't recommended for all women.

Test Used to Screen for Ovarian Cancer

The goal of screening tests is to look for evidence of specific disease in a person without symptoms.

Examples of common screening tests include Pap smears or a routine colonoscopy. Screening tests differ from diagnostic tests, which determine the cause of symptoms a person may be experiencing. There are two tests that doctors generally use to screen for ovarian cancer:

Ovarian Cancer Screening for Average-Risk Women

In this excerpt, provided by UpToDate-- an electronic resource used by many patients and their doctors looking for in-depth medical information-- we can learn what average risk means and how screening applies to this category of women:

"Women with an "average risk" of ovarian cancer include those with no history of ovarian cancer or a BRCA mutation in a first or second degree relative (mother, sister, grandmother, aunt). Screening for ovarian cancer is not recommended in average risk women because of the high risk of a false positive result. This would cause many women to undergo needless surgery."

The CA-125 tumor marker test is notorious for producing false positives and also false negatives. Levels of the CA-125 protein in the body can be influenced by other conditions -- something as mild as menstruation can cause levels to spike in some women. Not all women with ovarian cancer experience an increase of the protein in the blood, either.

These flaws make the screening test unreliable and ineffective for women of average risk.

Ovarian Cancer Screening for Women With Family History of Ovarian Cancer

Women who have a family history of ovarian cancer are encouraged to see a genetic counselor to determine if genetic testing to screen for a BRCA mutation would be beneficial. Not all women with a family history are recommended for testing. There are criteria for testing that predicts the likelihood that you are at high risk of having a mutated BRCA gene. Genetic testing is completely voluntary and meeting with a genetic counselor will help you decide if testing is necessary. If testing reveals a mutation, then you may be advised to have regular ovarian cancer screenings.


Carlson, Karen J. "Ovarian Cancer Screening." UpToDate. October 2009.