Ovarian cancer is the most lethal form of gynecological cancer because it can develop without symptoms that produce red flags, and screening isn’t easy — or recommended for everyone.

This article will explore how your doctor can screen for ovarian cancer, who should get a screening, and how often it should happen.

Screening for ovarian cancer is currently not recommended for those without symptoms, according to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF).

In the United States, it’s estimated 19,880 people will receive a diagnosis of ovarian cancer for 2022, with an estimated 12,810 deaths. This makes ovarian cancer the fifth most fatal type of cancer for women, and the most fatal cancer of the reproductive system.

While each person has a lifetime risk of about 1 in 78 when it comes to developing ovarian cancer and a 1 in 108 chance of dying of ovarian cancer, most women don’t receive a diagnosis until after they reach menopause. Before this, symptoms of ovarian cancer can be similar to symptoms of other reproductive problems, and screening may just result in false positives and unnecessary medical care, according to the USPSTF.

Ovarian cancer screenings in the transgender community

Ovarian cancers are all too often seen as a “women’s issue,” but cancer can sometimes occur in the ovaries regardless of your gender. Even the sources cited within this article often conflate sex and gender when describing their findings and can be presumed to have only cisgendered participants.

Trans people are likely to have compounding complications from getting proper cancer screening. This can be because some gynecological cancer screenings may actively aggravate their gender dysphoria. However, this can also be because they’re far less likely to have a physician that’s trained in caring for people of their gender.

There’s not enough data yet to determine whether transgender people are at a greater risk of ovarian cancer due to hormone therapies. At the moment, there are no transgender-specific cancer recommendations, but experts suggest that anyone with ovaries follow the standard screening procedures that we’ll discuss in this article.

If the idea of invasive gynecological tests is off-putting to you, talk with a doctor about blood tests such as the CA-125 or other options that may be available to you.

Was this helpful?

At what age should you get regular screenings for ovarian cancer?

Screening for ovarian cancer isn’t currently recommended for those without symptoms or family history of this disease, so there’s no recommended age at which testing should begin. Typically, this cancer develops as you get older and in those with a strong family genetic history of ovarian cancer. Roughly half of all women diagnosed with ovarian cancer are 63 years of age or older.

If you experience symptoms or have a strong family risk of ovarian cancer due to inherited genetic mutations, talk with a doctor about when screening may be appropriate for you.

There are several ways your doctor can check for ovarian cancer, yet none of these are particularly exact.

Pap smears and pelvic exams that can uncover other gynecological cancers aren’t especially helpful when it comes to screening for ovarian cancer. The best options for screening at this time include:

  • a transvaginal ultrasound to help identify masses in the uterus, fallopian tubes, or ovaries. However, it can’t determine if they’re cancerous or benign.
  • a biopsy and examination of the tissue is currently the only way to diagnose ovarian cancer.
  • a CA-125 blood test to measure certain proteins that could indicate ovarian cancer. This is mostly used to help stage your cancer after diagnosis.

Both of these tests may be helpful in identifying ovarian cancer, but they’re more useful in staging cancers and developing treatment plans. There’s still a need for better testing and screening methods when it comes to ovarian cancer.

Testing for ovarian cancer isn’t incredibly accurate, and about 75 percent of women with ovarian cancer are already at an advanced stage when diagnosed. The CA-125 test is the most commonly used screening and diagnostic tool for ovarian cancer. This test measures a protein called the cancer antigen 125 that’s elevated in about 80 percent of women with later-stage ovarian cancer and 50 percent of women with early stage ovarian cancer.

This test result can also appear elevated in the presence of other conditions, too, including:

On its own, the CA-125 shouldn’t be used to diagnose ovarian cancer. The USPSTF recommends this test be used to help screen for ovarian cancer only in symptomatic or high risk individuals.

If you’re having symptoms that you believe may be related to ovarian or another gynecological cancer, talk with a doctor about screening. Common symptoms when they do appear can include things such as:

  • bloating
  • pelvic or abdominal pain
  • quickly feeling full after eating
  • loss of appetite
  • urination problems

Early detection and treatment is the best way to lower your chances of dying of ovarian cancer. Talk with a doctor about your overall cancer risk, if you have a family history of ovarian cancer, and any unusual symptoms you may be having — especially if these symptoms come on suddenly or last more than 2 weeks.

A CA-125 blood test can cost around $200, and a transvaginal ultrasound costs between $150 and $250. There are also some direct-to-consumer home testing companies that advertise CA-125 testing kits for as little as $34.

Medicare currently covers both of these tests, and most insurance providers tend to follow their guidelines. However, it’s best to contact your insurance company to see what part of your coverage they may fall under.

If you don’t have insurance and need testing assistance, contact organizations such as your local Planned Parenthood, public health department, or the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition. These organizations may have financial assistance and/or local resources available for testing and treatment of ovarian cancer.

Despite the fact that ovarian cancer can develop without obvious symptoms and is usually diagnosed in advanced stages, routine screening isn’t routinely recommended. Few people notice symptoms in the early stages of ovarian cancer, but later-stage diagnosis can make this type of cancer more difficult to treat.

At this time, routine screening isn’t recommended for people who are at average risk of ovarian cancer and not experiencing symptoms. If you have concerning gynecological symptoms such as bloating or abdominal pain, or if you have a family history of gynecological cancers, talk with a doctor about how you can be screened and tested for certain ovarian cancers.