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Are the Tubes More Than a Tunnel? Their “Connection” to Ovarian Cancer

For decades, we thought of the fallopian tubes as no more than a plus one. Whether they were the sidekick to the ovaries or to the uterus, they were sort of like the accomplice that everyone overlooked. We did make some noise about damaged or blocked tubes in women who were trying to get pregnant because damaged tubes meant the sperm and egg would need to find another way to meet up. But for women who had let the fertility ship set sail, the tubes seemed like no more than an afterthought. However, times have changed: the tubes have taken center stage. Here’s why.

In order to understand the tube story, you must first hear the ovary story, specifically the part that addresses ovarian cancer and ovarian cancer screening. Unfortunately, when it comes to ovarian cancer screening tests, the ending is not a happy one. The tests either fail to detect ovarian cancers until they are advanced, or they over call benign processes (think simple cysts, dermoids, and endometriosis) as cancers. And while you certainly don’t want to miss an ovarian cancer, you also don’t want to put women through additional testing and surgery that they may not need. Hence, every GYN faces a conundrum when trying to screen for ovarian cancer. How do you avoid missing an ovarian cancer without miscalling something as ovarian cancer? Cue the tubes…

When the news broke that the tubes might play a big role in ovarian cancer (basically, that ovarian cancers might start in the tubes and the endometrium and then spread to the ovary) and that tubal removals (medically termed salpingectomies) could be the answer to early screening and detection, the OB/GYN community erupted in cheers. Could we have found a clue to cracking the ovarian cancer code? For decades, the theory had been that cancer spread from the ovary to the tube. Could it really be the opposite? Evidence suggested that for select types of ovarian cancer this could very well be the case. A breakthrough that could have big-time benefits: if you took out the tube, then you could take out or at least take down the chance of ovarian cancer later.

While the excitement in the OB/GYN community is palpable, neither the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists nor we are recommending salpingectomies for everyone. Rather, we are suggesting that you view the tubes as more than just an afterthought, that you treat them as more than a plus one. If you are planning to extract your uterus or you are planning a tubal sterilization procedure (a.k.a. tie your tubes), you should have a serious conversation about simply removing the tubes at the same time. Think of it this way: if you aren’t planning future fertility, those tubes will not be missed. And their departure might help you duck out of the way of ovarian cancer.

Ovarian cancer is like the enemy that lurks in the dark. You often can’t see it until it’s too late. And while many have attempted to find some good night-vision goggles (a.k.a. good screening tests), they have repeatedly come up short. Tubal awareness/removal may be the first light in the dark. And although there is still a lot of black and grey in the area of ovarian cancer prevention and early detection, the data on salpingectomies have certainly brightened the situation.

Maybe soon, we will be able to see it all.