Most diagnosed with ovarian cancer die of it, but a special type of screening, free at six sites in Kentucky, can reverse the odds

Ovarian cancer is deadly sneaky. When detected early, it is often curable, but most women who have it don’t have any symptoms until it has progressed to an advanced stage, when survival is unlikely. Screening and early detection are critical to saving lives.

As part of National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, UK HealthCare is celebrating its Markey Cancer Center‘s Ovarian Cancer Screening Program, which screens women free of charge at six locations around Kentucky. A group of state legislators and university officials met recently to promote the program.

For 50 years, ovarian cancer has caused more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system, and is fifth in cancer deaths among women.

The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2019, about 23,000 women will get a new diagnosis of ovarian cancer and about 14,000 of them will die from it. In Kentucky, the ACS estimates about 280 women will be newly diagnosed with ovarian cancer this year and 190 will die from it. Thus, the predicted national death rate is 61 percent, the Kentucky rate 68 percent, probably because Kentucky women don’t get screened as much.

Dr. John R. van Nagell Jr., a gynecologic oncologist at the cancer center, said the five-year survival rate of women whose cancer was detected by screening is 86 percent, twice as high as the survival rate among those who don’t get screened.

“While regular pelvic examinations are important and can detect many other abnormalities, including cervical cancer, they are not effective in detecting ovarian cancer in its earliest and most treatable stages,” he said in a UK news release.

Van Nagell and his colleagues started the screening program in 1987 to see if the use of transvaginal sonography, a form of ultrasound, could detect ovarian cancer early. The painless, radiation-free procedure is able to detect tumors that are too small to be diagnosed during a gynecological exam.

Research from the screening program, published in the medical journal Obstetrics and Gynecology last year, found that annual ultrasound screening of women who are at risk of ovarian cancer and have no symptoms can save the lives of those who unknowingly have early-stage ovarian cancer.

Over the program’s 32 years, nearly 350,000 free screening examinations have been provided to more than 48,000 Kentucky women; 607 ovarian tumors, more than 100 of them malignant, have been detected.

Women from every county in the state have participated in the program, according to the release. Screenings are performed in Lexington, Elizabethtown, Somerset, Prestonsburg, Maysville and Paducah.

The Kentucky Extension Homemakers Association and the Telford Foundation provided the initial funding for the program.

“We are extremely proud of the Kentucky Extension Homemakers Association’s dedication to this life saving program,” Nancy Cox, dean of the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition, said in the release. “Their fundraising efforts have raised nearly $1.5 million but their work really goes beyond fundraising. They routinely participate in the screening program, organize trips to screening sites from around the state, promote ovarian cancer awareness, and host educational events regarding ovarian cancer. This program positively impacts Kentucky women and represents the kind of research that should be conducted by a state’s land-grant university.”

The UK screening program is free and open to women age 50 or older, or women over 25 who have a family history of ovarian cancer. For more information, call 859-323-4687 or 800-766-8279.