Lawmakers, UK HealthCare recognize lifesaving ovarian cancer screening

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WTVQ/Press Release) — As part of National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, former first lady Jane Beshear, Kentucky House Democratic Caucus Leader Joni Jenkins and Rep. Cherlynn Stevenson joined UK HealthCare to highlight the long-running work of the University of Kentucky (UK) Markey Cancer Center’s Ovarian Cancer Screening Program.

The program is an ongoing, 34-year research study showing that annual ultra-sound screening continues to detect ovarian cancer at an earlier stage than is possible with a clinical examination.

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Gov. Andy Beshear proclaimed September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month in Kentucky.

“The Ovarian Cancer Outreach Program at UK provides thousands of Kentucky women with free, easy screenings every year, giving them peace of mind about their health or the best fighting chance at recovery through early detection,” said Beshear.

“UK, UK HealthCare and UK’s Markey Cancer Center are indispensable Team Kentucky partners when it comes to a major goal of the Beshear-Coleman administration: making sure health care is accepted as a basic human right and is accessible to everyone in the commonwealth,” said Lt. Gov. Coleman.

Lt. Gov. Coleman said this year, the governor supplemented the $500,000 General Fund appropriation for the Ovarian Cancer Outreach Program at UK with another $300,000 from the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement funds.

Markey’s Ovarian Screening Program was initiated in 1987 by Markey oncologist Dr. John R. van Nagell Jr. and his colleagues. The goal was to determine whether transvaginal sonography could be an effective means of early ovarian cancer detection.

For more than 50 years, ovarian cancer has remained the leading cause of gynecologic cancer mortality in the United States. This year, the American Cancer Society estimates that approximately 13,770 deaths from ovarian cancer will be reported in the United States, making it the fifth leading cause of cancer mortality in women.

When it is detected early, women often can be cured with existing treatment methods. However, most women have no symptoms until the disease has progressed to an advanced stage. As the disease progresses, survival rates drop sharply. In 2018, Dr. van Nagell published a study in Obstetrics and Gynecology that shows that annual ultrasound screening of at-risk asymptomatic women increases the survival rates of women with type I and type II epithelial ovarian cancer.

Lt. Gov. Coleman said during a press conference Wednesday, ovarian cancer found in early stages has a 90% chance of being cured, whereas ovarian cancer found late has only a 10% chance.

“When I say these screenings save lives, that is not a speculation, that is not a hopeful statement, that is a fact,” says Lt. Gov. Coleman. “The exam is complete in less than 15 minutes and the impact that 15 minutes could have on your life and your family could not be better.”

“While regular pelvic examinations are important and can detect many other abnormalities, including cervical cancer, they are not effective in detecting ovarian cancer in its earliest and most treatable stages,” Dr. van Nagell said. “Early detection is vital to saving lives. In fact, the 5-year survival rate of women whose cancer was detected by screening is 86% – that’s twice as high as those who do not get screened.

Transvaginal sonography is painless, radiation-free and can be completed in less than 15 minutes. During the examination, a small vaginal probe is used to take a sonographic picture of the ovaries, and to measure ovarian volume. This procedure is able to detect ovarian tumors even when they are too small to be diagnosed during an annual examination.

So far, nearly 345,230 free screening examinations have been provided to more than 49,358 Kentucky women, and women from every county in the state have participated in this program. Through the screenings, 632 ovarian tumors and 110 ovarian malignancies have been detected, as well as 23 non-ovarian malignancies. Currently, screenings are being performed at four locations throughout the state, including Lexington, Elizabethtown, Somerset and Paducah.

At present, more than 5,800 women have already scheduled a screening from Sept. 1, 2021 to Jan. 1, 2023.

“Right now, it’s more important than ever for people to remain vigilant about their health, including keeping up their regular schedule of health screenings,” said Mark F. Newman, M.D., UK executive vice president for health affairs. “We know that many cancer screenings have been postponed or skipped over the past 16 months due to the pandemic, but it’s vital to stay on top of your screenings to prevent future health problems. Ovarian cancer screening is not widely available across the country, so I encourage Kentucky women to take advantage of this unique opportunity to take control of their own health by joining the UK Ovarian Screening Program when they’re eligible.”

The initial funding for the program came from the Telford Foundation and the Kentucky Extension Homemakers Association (KEHA). The late Virginia McCandless, a Barren County Extension Homemaker started the ovarian cancer research fundraising effort with Dr. van Nagell in 1977. Their goal was to raise $1 from each member of KEHA. Her idea took off, and KEHA members have supported it by participating in regular screenings and challenging each county to donate at least $1 per member annually.

“We are extremely proud of the KEHA’s dedication to this life saving program,” said Nancy Cox, dean of the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. “Their fundraising efforts have raised more than $1.5 million, but their work really goes beyond fundraising. They routinely participate in the screening program, organize trips to screening sites from around the state, promote ovarian cancer awareness and host educational events regarding ovarian cancer. This program positively impacts Kentucky women and represents the kind of research that should be conducted by a state’s land-grant university.”

The Ovarian Cancer Screening Program is open to women age 50 or older, or women over the age of 25 who have a family history of ovarian cancer. Screening is free. For more information, call (859) 323-4687 or (800) 766-8279.