Video: Cancer test breakthrough?

By Robert Bazell Chief science and health correspondent
NBC News
updated 5/9/2005 8:52:16 PM ET 2005-05-10T00:52:16

This year 22,000 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the United States and 16,000 will die of it, according to the American Cancer Society.  That is one of the highest death rates for any cancer and the primary reason is that there is no effective method for early detection.

A new study published Monday reports an important step toward a blood test to detect ovarian cancer at its earliest stages — while it is still easily treatable.

"Probably the greatest improvement in women's health care today would be the accurate ability to detect early stage ovarian cancer," says Dr. David Fishman with the New York University Cancer Institute.

Early diagnosis is key
Nyrvah Richard, an artist, felt a swelling in her lower abdomen when she was just 25. Several doctors dismissed her complaints until one diagnosed her with early stage ovarian cancer. That was 10 years ago and now she is fine.

"I was a lot more fortunate than a lot of other women," says Richard.

Most women with the disease are not so lucky.

"When you are diagnosed late, as 80 to 90 percent of the woman are, the 5-year-survival rate is extremely poor, down in the 10 percent range," says Dr. David Ward of the Nevada Cancer Institute.

That's why Ward's results from his university lab are so important. He found that a blood test for four proteins can find early ovarian cancer in 95 percent of cases. While that may sound like a high number, a screening test to be used on the entire population needs to be almost 100 percent accurate. Otherwise, thousands of women would be told they had cancer, when in fact they did not.

But tests are continuing on volunteers at high risk for ovarian cancer — either because of a family history or because they've had a different kind of cancer that increases risk. Ward is willing to bet there will be a test soon.

"Oh, I'd give you 100-to-1," he says.

Those are good odds that many more women, like Richard, will be able to survive a deadly cancer.

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