Cells collected during smear tests for cervical cancer might be useful for detecting early tumours elsewhere, such as in the breasts and ovaries, research suggests.
Scientists say they have found tell-tale signatures in these neck-of-the-womb cells linked to other cancers.
Looking for these patterns could provide a warning doctors can act on, they say in the journal Nature Communications.
Experts recommend larger trials.
Early cancers are easier to treat.
But despite much research, there is still no reliable screening test for early ovarian cancer. These tumours are often more advance and harder to treat when they are found.
Cells that turn cancerous often show distinctive early changes at the molecular level.
And researchers believe they have found some in smear-test samples that could help identify women at higher risk of specific other cancers, not just cancer of the cervix.
To identify down the most important ones linked to breast and ovarian cancer, Prof Martin Widschwendter and colleagues analysed cervical smear cell samples from:
- 242 women with and 869 without ovarian cancer
- 329 women with and 869 without breast cancer
They now recommend studies with more women to confirm their results.
Prof Widschwendter told BBC News: “What we are talking about is identifying women at higher risk who might not otherwise know it.
“They can then have additional cancer checks.
“It’s a bit like checking blood pressure to see who is at risk of heart problems.”
The work was funded by The Eve Appeal research charity that hopes to drive improved treatments for gynaecological cancers.
Dr Julie Sharp, from Cancer Research UK, said: “Screening for cervical cancer is already an invaluable tool, so it’s interesting to see if cell samples taken through screening could be used in future to detect other cancers.
“However, we need further research to see how accurate this method is at detecting women with ovarian and breast cancer.
“Like the authors of this research, we look forward to seeing larger trials over longer periods to establish whether cervical cells could diagnose other cancers at an earlier stage.”
About 20 women a day are diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the UK
It often causes symptoms similar to other more common and less serious conditions, including:
- persistent bloating or a swollen tummy
- feeling full quickly and/or loss of appetite
- pain in the lower tummy area, pelvis or back
- passing urine more often than usual
- extreme tiredness
- weight loss or gain
- changes in bowel habits
If you regularly have one or more of these symptoms, which are not normal for you, it is important to book an appointment with your GP.
Breast and cervical screening is also recommended for some trans or non-binary people. Talk to your GP or gender-identity clinic about this.
Men can develop breast cancer too and should not ignore symptoms such as a lump.