Over 7000 women in the UK are diagnosed with ovarian cancer every year. As the name suggests, it originates in and around the ovaries and fallopian tubes. It generally affects women over the age of 50 who have been through the menopause, but it can affect women of any age.
It’s the sixth most common cancer for women in the UK, and like most cancers, catching it early is essential for the best chances of survival.
What is ovarian cancer?
This type of cancer occurs within or around the ovaries, the small reproductive organs that store a woman’s eggs. When abnormal cells start to divide and grow, they form a tumour that can grow out of control and spread to other parts of the body.
Depending where the cancer started, it can be classified differently. Ovarian cancer most commonly starts on the surface of the ovaries or the ends of the fallopian tubes, and this is known as an epithelial cancer. Fallopian tube cancer stars in the fallopian tubes connecting the ovaries and the womb, while primary peritoneal cancer starts in a thin layer of fatty tissue that lines the abdomen and protects it organs. These different types of cancer involve similar cells, and are treated in the same way.
Main symptoms of ovarian cancer
The most common symptoms of ovarian cancer are:
- Constantly bloated/swollen tummy
- Discomfort or pain in pelvic area
- Loss of appetite or feeling full quickly
- Needing to pee often and urgently
These symptoms are easy to miss as signs of ovarian cancer as they can so often be attributed to other minor conditions. While they don’t always point to ovarian cancer, you shouldn’t hesitate to speak to your doctor if you start persistently experiencing any or all of these symptoms.
As well as the most common symptoms, others include:
- Vaginal bleeding (post-menopause)
- Chronic indigestion or nausea
- Changes in bowel habits
- Chronic fatigue
- Pain during sex
- Unintentional weight loss
When to speak to a doctor
If you’ve been experiencing these symptoms persistently, such as bloating more than 3 times a week, it’s worth speaking to your GP. The main symptoms can start fairly suddenly, so take note of any changes in your normal habits or feelings.
Many of these symptoms can be related to other common issues, and it’s unlikely to be cancer, but it’s always best to be sure. It’s also important to know if your family has a history of ovarian or breast cancers, and pass this information on to your doctor when you see them.
If your doctor gives you the all clear but your symptoms don’t go away – or they start to get worse – you should see your doctor again and tell them.
Causes of ovarian cancer
Exactly why some women get ovarian cancer isn’t known, but there are factors than can increase the risk of getting it, including:
- being over 50
- a history of ovarian or breast cancer in your family
- undergoing hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
- lack of exercise
- exposure to asbestos
Treatment for ovarian cancer
Ovarian cancer treatments offered depend on several factors such as how far the cancer has spread and the state of your general health.
The most common treatment is surgery to remove the cancer. This can involve removing both ovaries, the fallopian tubes, and the womb, though sometimes the womb can be left intact depending on the severity of the cancer.
Chemotherapy is often used to then destroy any remaining cancer cells after surgery, but it can also be used to shrink the size of the cancer before surgery.
Though it’s much less common, radiotherapy is sometimes used to target and kill cancer cells with high energy x-rays. For example, it might be used to help relieve some symptoms of advanced ovarian cancer.
Living with ovarian cancer
Being diagnosed with ovarian cancer can involve a lot of emotions and questions, and a lot of information to process. Your doctor and medical team will be able to guide you through the next steps and decide on the best course of treatments. Recovery from surgery can take up to three months, and it’ll take time for you to return to your normal daily life. This could involve time off from work or other responsibilities, not driving, and avoiding intense exercise and lifting heavy objects.
If you’re pre-menopausal before your surgery and you have both ovaries removed, you’ll start to immediately experience it. This might mean undergoing hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to delay the effects of menopause until you reach the natural age for it to occur (45 to 55).
The outcome of any treatments and your survival chances depend on many different factors and can never be exact. For example, the stage at which the cancer was diagnosed, your general health, and other treatments you may have undergone can all effect how long you’re expected to live. Every case is different, and your individual circumstances will help your doctor to give you the clearest information possible.
Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month
March is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, the perfect opportunity to raise awareness of the symptoms and treatments of ovarian cancer, so more women can be diagnosed earlier and greatly increase chances of survival.
Never ignore symptoms or feel like you’re seeing the doctor for no good reason. It’s always better to be safe.