The received wisdom of cancer treatment in the United States is that early detection and early treatment save lives. But this is not always true with some types of cancer. Sometimes the early detection of a cancer just means the patient lives longer with the knowledge of having cancer, but their life span is the same as it would have been with later detection.
A new study of women with ovarian cancer has found that women who undergo blood tests every few months to check for early signs of recurrence of the disease do not live any longer than women who wait until they feel symptoms from the cancer’s return. The test is called CA125.
As reported by Andrew Pollack in the New York Times, the new study was presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
The reason that the CA125 test doesn’t help is that some cancers are resistant to chemotherapy, so whenever treatment is started, it doesn’t matter, and others are very sensitive to chemotherapy, so that they can be knocked back whether treatment is started early or a few months later. This is according to the lead author of the study, Dr. Gordon Rustin of the Mount Vernon Hospital in Middlesex, England.
Peace of mind is an important related issue. A lot of patients experience anxiety when they are waiting for the results of the periodic tests. For some, the knowledge makes them feel in control; for others, the anxiety is too much and they would prefer not to know. So getting the test becomes a very individual decision.