The good news about ovarian cancer, which affects 6,800 women every year in the UK, is that it’s easily treatable – as long as the disease is caught in its early stages.
‘Early diagnosis is crucial, and it dramatically enhances a woman’s chance of surviving this disease,’ says Sam Gibson, head of communications at Ovarian Cancer Action – which is spearheading the ‘What every woman should know’ campaign.
In fact, 90 per cent of women who are diagnosed with stage 1 cancer – which hasn’t spread beyond the ovary – survive for more than five years.
The bad news is that, sadly, most women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed when the disease is already advanced – so less than 40 per cent of women survive five years beyond diagnosis.
‘This needs to change, and we’re determined to raise awareness about the symptoms, both among women and their doctors,’ says Gibson.
Even GPs can miss vital signs – GP awareness of the possible signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer is currently low.
To find out more about what causes ovarian cancer, take a look at this video.
What are the signs to look out for?
Ovarian cancer has been labelled ‘the silent killer’ in the past because it’s hard to diagnose – but the disease does have recognisable symptoms.
- persistent tummy or pelvic pain
- increased tummy size or persistent bloating – not bloating that comes and goes
- difficulty eating and feeling full quickly.
Women may also experience other symptoms – such as the need to wee more frequently, changes in bowel habit, extreme fatigue or back pain.
‘The symptoms are sometimes mistaken for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but the key to ovarian cancer symptoms seems to be their frequency and persistency,’ explains GP Dr Sarah Jarvis, author of ‘Women’s health for life: medical advice you can trust: symptoms, treatment, prevention’.
‘If you have these symptoms more than 12 times in a month, you should seriously consider going to see your doctor,’ she says.
It can also help to keep a diary to monitor how often symptoms occur.
Who is most at risk of getting this disease?
Most women who develop ovarian cancer are over the age of 50 – but it can affect women of all ages.
There are certain factors that can increase your risk – including smoking, being overweight, starting your periods early and having the menopause late.
‘It’s known that faulty inherited genes, called BRCA1 and BRCA2, increase the risk of ovarian cancer – as well as breast cancer – but these are rare,’ explains Dr Jarvis.
‘The vast majority of women, who develop ovarian cancer, don’t have these genes,’ she says.
It’s now known that fertility treatment doesn’t increase a woman’s risk of developing this disease. A possible link with the use of talcum powder hasn’t yet been ruled out.
How is the disease diagnosed?
Your GP will first perform an examination and take your medical history.
Based on this, he or she may decide to carry out a blood test – looking for a protein called CA125 that’s often elevated in the blood of women who have ovarian cancer.
A scan can look inside the pelvis. A common type is the transvaginal ultrasound test, which can show any growths developing on the ovaries.
If these tests pick up any abnormalities: a surgical procedure called a laparoscopy is done, and small samples of tissue are taken to check for cancer cells.
What are the treatment options available?
There are three main treatments: surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
Almost all women diagnosed with ovarian cancer will need surgery, and the treatments are usually used in combination.
‘A lot depends on how advanced the cancer is and the health of the patient. Gene therapy and hormone therapy are both new types of treatment that are currently undergoing evaluation in clinical trials,’ says Dr Jarvis.
Is there a screening programme?
At the moment, there’s no national screening programme for this disease. But a trial is underway that will be completed in several years’ time.
Researchers will have to decide whether or not screening methods actually help to save lives or just make more women worried.
How can women reduce their risk of getting this disease?
Ovarian cancer seems to be less common in women who have had children and breastfed their babies.
The more children a woman has had, the lower her risk.
‘There’s also strong evidence to show that the use of the combined contraceptive pill – the most commonly used type in the UK – can protect against ovarian cancer, even long after a woman stops taking it,’ says Dr Jarvis.
Leading a healthy lifestyle, staying in shape and not smoking is also important.