Ovarian Cancer – The Smear Test Won't Tell You Much

This post was authored by Brian Nash and posted to The Eye Opener on February 28th, 2010.

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According to an article published by the UK Press Association, a UK study revealed that one in three women mistakenly believe that a smear test can diagnose ovarian cancer. The test is also known as Papanicolaou test, Pap smear, Pap test, or cervical smear.

[The smear test] is a screening test used in gynecology to detect premalignant and malignant (cancerous) processes in the ectocervix. … In taking a Pap smear, a tool is used to gather cells from the outer opening of the cervix (Latin for “neck”) of the uterus and the endocervix. The cells are examined under a microscope to look for abnormalities. The test aims to detect potentially pre-cancerous changes (called cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN) or cervical dysplasia), which are usually caused by sexually transmitted human papillomaviruses (HPVs). The test remains an effective, widely used method for early detection of pre-cancer and cervical cancer. The test may also detect infections and abnormalities in the endocervix and endometrium.

While the smear test is customarily used to diagnose cervical cancer, it is not very helpful in diagnosing ovarian cancer. Cervical cancer and ovarian cancer are distinct medical conditions with distinct symptoms. Cervical cancer refers to malignant tissue developing in the cervix – the organ, which connects the uterus and the vagina. Last year, there were about 4,070 deaths associates with cervical cancer. The smear test is effective in diagnosing cervical cancer.

Ovarian cancer refers to malignant tissue in one or both of the ovaries. Last year, there were about 14,600 deaths associated with ovarian cancer – a much higher mortality rate when compared to that of cervical cancer. Symptoms of ovarian cancer include, but are not limited to : abdominal pressure, abdominal distention, urinary urgency, abdominal pain and discomfort, indigestion, constipation, changes in menstruation, lethargy, and pain during intercourse.

According to the article,

Almost one in three women (29%) mistakenly believe a smear test will pick up signs of ovarian cancer. …  Only 4% are confident they could spot symptoms of the disease themselves and many believe it is less common than cervical cancer. … The poll of more than 1,000 women found that twice as many (66%) had been given information about cervical cancer as those who had details on ovarian cancer (33%). Of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer, more than half (56%) did not know anything about the disease beforehand.

These numbers reveal a dangerous misconception about ovarian cancer. Many more women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer than cervical cancer. Moreover, many more women die as a result of ovarian cancer than as a result of cervical cancer. Early diagnosis is key in both instances. In this regard, being knowledgeable about these medical conditions can be a matter of life and death. Be mindful that a smear test is not helpful in diagnosing ovarian cancer.

Contributing author: Jon Stefanuca

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