Ovarian Cancer - What You Need to Know
21,500. Twenty one and a half thousand. That's the number of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year in the US. In the UK it's about 7000. And over 70% of them will die from it, making this disease one of the most deadly of women's cancers. The good news is that, like most cancers, when it's detected early the 5-year survival rate is over 90%.
Early detection needs an awareness of symptoms and that's what we're going to look at here.
Risk factors for ovarian cancer
It's not known why some women get ovarian cancer and some don't but there are risk factors. These include:
- being overweight/obese
- having endometriosis
- being childless/child free
- early menarche (starting your periods) and/or late menopause
- having a diet high in animal fats and low in fruit and vegetables
- genetic factors (this plays an important part in 5-10% of women with ovarian cancer)
- some studies have shown that oestrogen-only HRT for 10+ years increases risk
- infertility treatment is not conclusively linked to an increased risk
- risk increases with increasing age - this is true of many illnesses, especially cancers
Factors which may lower a woman's risk include breastfeeding your babies and having 2 or more children.
Symptoms of ovarian cancer
Symptoms are often vague and can be explained away by other more common complaints. Indeed, symptoms of early cancer are often non-existent. If you are in any way concerned, talk to your doctor sooner rather than later.
Most ovarian cancers occur in women over 50 years of age but they are seen in younger women too, so stay alert.
The Ovarian Cancer Awareness campaign (see www.ovariancancerawareness.org ) asks women to be aware of the following 4 symptoms if they occur together on most days:
- a persistent bloated feeling
- pain in the lower abdomen
- needing to pass urine more often than normal
- difficulty in eating and feeling full more quickly.
Other symptoms to be aware of are:
- loss of appetite
- unexplained weight gain
- abdominal swelling
- lower back pain
- pain during sex
- diarrhoea or constipation - changes in bowel habit
All of these symptoms can be caused by many other health problems from stress to irritable bowel syndrome, but if they worry you, do discuss them with a professional and get to the bottom of the problem.
Diagnosis of ovarian cancer
Unfortunately there is no effective ovarian cancer screening tool. The protein CA125 is present in most women at low levels and a blood test can tell if it's high. However it's not a protein that's specific to ovarian cancer and can be high for other reasons which makes it unreliable when looking for ovarian cancer.
Your doctor will want to know about your general health, family history and lifestyle. She may feel your tummy for lumps and bumps, do an internal exam, take some blood tests and arrange a scan of your abdomen which will show any abnormalities on the ovaries. This may be benign cysts or benign tumours. If you feel your concerns aren't being heard - and many general doctors don't know enough about ovarian cancer - ask for a second opinion.
If you need a specialist gynaecology opinion some of these tests may be repeated and you may have x-rays and CT scans which will give a greater picture of what's going on.
Once a problem area has been pinpointed - or if there is doubt about something - you may have a laparoscopy (key-hole surgery to look inside the abdomen) or a laparotomy (where the abdomen is opened surgically to look at the organs). A lab biopsy shows what sort of tissue has been found - ie something to worry about or something benign.
For more information take a look also at these websites:
- Ovarian Cancer Action: homepage
- Comprehensive Cancer Information - National Cancer Institute
Accurate, up-to-date, comprehensive cancer information from the U.S. government's principal agency for cancer research.
The reason ovarian cancer is so deadly is 3-fold.
Firstly there are few/no symptoms in the early stages. Secondly women don't discuss any symptoms they do have soon enough and thirdly the lack of a definitive test means that investigations take a while. Later diagnosis means the cancer may have spread.