December 12th, 2010
07:15 PM ET
A diagnostic screening test may be able to detect with more than 80 percent accuracy the early warning signs of uterine cancer in postmenopausal women who show no symptoms, suggests a new study published Sunday in the journal The Lancet.
Researchers in the United Kingdom gave transvaginal ultrasounds to more than 37,000 women who had gone through menopause, and found a strong correlation between having certain abnormal levels of thickness in the uterine wall and a subsequent diagnosis of endometrial cancer.
Despite the promising results, researchers are hesitant to recommend the screening test for all women.
Endometrial cancer forms in the tissue lining the uterus and is the most common cancer of the female reproductive organs according to the American Cancer Society. Each year more than 43,000 women learn they have the condition, and there are nearly 8,000 deaths.
Currently in the U.S., yearly endometrial cancer screenings are recommended only for women who suffer from Lynch syndrome, a rare condition that puts people at increased risk for certain cancers.
The authors of the Lancet study conclude that even though their findings are of "immediate value" and show that an transvaginal ultrasound can detect endometrial cancer before symptoms appear in a high proportion of women, "there are a number of issues that need to be addressed before population screening for endometrial cancer can be proposed."
They note, for example, the possibility of false positives, which they say can be reduced by limiting the diagnostic test to women at high risk for the disease.
"These results are promising," says Robert Smith, director of cancer screening for the American Cancer Society. "But a decision to recommend screening is predicated on determining the right target group and making sure the early diagnostic really makes a difference with a minimal level of harm."
Smith says though routine screening is definitely worth thinking about more carefully, nearly 15 percent of women who undergo the transvaginal ultrasound may require further evaluation that won’t result in cancer, and he says biopsies are intense and expensive. He suggests, however, that if a physician is already doing transvaginal ultrasound for other purposes, then taking note of the endometrial thickness levels found in this study can be used as an indication that further evaluation is needed.
More than half of all endometrial cancer cases are diagnosed in women between ages 50 and 69, and the condition has a high survivability rate when detected early. However Smith notes many postmenopausal women receive a late diagnosis because they overlook a very important warning sign. "The American Cancer Society places a great deal of emphasis of being aware that postmenopausal bleeding is not normal and if it occurs, contact a doctor immediately," he advises.
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