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To treat ovarian cancer more successfully, first we must find the tumors

July 28, 2009 |  2:35 pm

Chemo Just because ovarian tumors aren't detectable doesn't mean they aren't life-threatening. By the time women and their doctors are aware of their existence, treatment options are often limited. The ability to detect such tumors early would go a long way toward eliminating the specter of ovarian cancer that haunts many women. Ultimately, that might become the case.

Researchers at Stanford University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute analyzed reports on ovarian and Fallopian tube tissue removed prophylactically from women with a mutation in the BRCA1 gene that can increase the risk of ovarian cancer. They then devised mathematical models about the development of the disease.

They found, among other things, that serous cancers (an often fatal subtype) spend more than four years in the earlier stages of the disease, when treatment holds greater promise.

The researchers write that, for most of this period: "Serous cancers had a diameter of less than 1 cm (too small to be detected during surgery or by gross examination of the ovaries or Fallopian tubes) and that more than half of serous cancers had advanced to stage III/IV by the time they measured 3 cm across. Furthermore, to enable the detection of half of serous ovarian cancers before they reached stage III, an annual screening test would need to detect cancers with a diameter of 1.3 cm and to halve deaths from serous ovarian cancer, an annual screening test would need to detect 0.5-cm diameter tumors."

No such test exists.

But the early stages, they learned, last a while. So if a test can be devised (and they acknowledge the difficulty), the findings suggest a potential window of detection before the disease progresses.

These findings may not cheer most women. But more knowledge of the disease is good -- and this study contains some important observations.

Here's the full report, published Monday in PLoS Medicine.

And here's more on ovarian cancer from An estimated 21,550 cases of the disease will be diagnosed this year in the United States, according to statistics from the American Cancer Society, and an estimated 14,600 women will die from it. 

In other recent news about ovarian cancer, from Reuters: Early periods may reduce ovarian cancer survival.

-- Tami Dennis

Photo: Chemotherapy, along with surgery and radiation, is among the standard treatment options.

Credit: Getty Images