We need better screening for ovarian cancer
During this pandemic, I find myself also thinking about a different kind of loss — the passing of a dear friend to ovarian cancer. September marks National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, and we must continue to fight this deadly disease.
In 2020, Oregon will see an estimated 23,000 new cancer cases and nearly 8,300 deaths. We won't know for some time the effect of COVID-19 on cancer mortality rates, but we do know the virus has curtailed people's ability to get cancer screenings. This is lamentable given the benefits of catching cancer early. It is also understandable since the group of people most vulnerable to cancer — older Americans — is the same one at greatest risk for contracting COVID-19.
It is hard to overstate the importance of finding cancer before it has spread. The sooner cancer is detected, the more effectively it can be treated. When caught before it spreads throughout the body, five-year survival rates reach 89%. When caught too late, the survival rate drops to 21%.
Our ability to detect certain cancers earlier is one of the most noteworthy advancements since the War on Cancer began nearly 50 years ago. Yet we still have a long way to go before we meet the promise of cancer screenings. Today, we only have screenings for five cancers. While mammograms and colonoscopies are widely available, we lack an early screening test for the vast majority of cancers, including ovarian.
The good news is that science is catching up. Our understanding of the human genome and computing technology has increased exponentially — to the point where we can process unprecedented amounts of data gathered from human cells. This combination is being put to use in early detection for increasingly more types of cancer, and tests are expected to be made available as soon as next year. Imagine if the five-year survival rate for all early detected cancers was as high as the 98% for breast cancer when caught early?
To expand the types of cancer we screen for we need completely new approaches. Companies like GRAIL and Thrive have discovered that a single blood draw may fulfill the promise of less resource-intensive, more comprehensive, earlier cancer detection. These new technologies, in the middle of promising clinical trials and designed to complement current standard cancer screenings, are on their path to submission for FDA approval.
Once the technology is proven safe and effective, barriers to coverage of new cancer screenings are a major hurdle. Like newly approved treatments and diagnostics, doctors should be able to put these cancer screenings to use as soon as they are approved by the FDA.
If we want multi-cancer early detection to become a reality for most Oregonians, our representatives on Capitol Hill should embrace the scientific advancement and address the hurdles to adoption. For example, Medicare coverage of this technology will be key because the government program provides health insurance for the population most at risk for cancer – older Americans.
Last year, we lost nearly 14,000 American women to ovarian cancer. They did not have the benefit of early detection. One way to honor their memory during National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month is to recognize ovarian cancer symptoms and urge the women around you to see their doctor if they exhibit symptoms.
Zoya Kumar is the executive director of the Ovarian Cancer Alliance of Oregon and Southwest Washington.
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