Ovarian cancer might be a rather sombre topic for this month's column, but it's a very important one all the same. Ovarian cancer is the sixth most common type of cancer in women and is the biggest gynecological killer in women. It has a poor survival rate, as it often diagnosed when it as already spread.
As this month is Ovarian Cancer Awareness month, it's a great opportunity to reinforce the work of brilliant charities such as Ovarian Cancer Action and raise awareness of the disease and its symptoms—and that's exactly what it will take to improve detection of the disease and, in turn, improve survival rates. As the saying goes, knowledge is power, so read on for all you need to know about this pressing issue.
First things first, what is ovarian cancer?
Ovarian cancer is cancer of ovaries. The ovaries are the tiny walnut-shaped glands either side of the uterus. Our ovaries are at the heart of our fertility; they store and release our eggs as part of our monthly menstrual cycle and they also produce our female hormones oestrogen and progesterone.
There are three types of ovarian cancer. They are classified by the type of cell the cancer originates from—epithelial cell cancer, germ cell cancer and stromal cell cancer.
Classification is important to help decide the type of treatment and prognosis. Epithelial cell cancer is the most common and Stromal cell cancer is the least common.
And what are the stats?
Each year in the UK there are approximately 7400 cases of ovarian cancer. This is roughly 142 women each week. And there are around 4100 deaths from ovarian cancer.
And what are the symptoms?
The problem with the diagnosis ovarian cancer is that very often no symptoms develop until the cancer is more advanced, and those symptoms that do present can be quite non-specific so may not raise alarm bells in you or your doctor. It's for this reason that I think all women should be familiar with the symptoms of ovarian cancer. Listen to your body. If you feel unwell, or just not right with some of the symptoms I have listed below, please please don’t ignore it or wait for it to get worst before seeing your doctor. Your GP will be more than happy to see you and explore your symptoms sooner rather than later.
Here are the symptoms you are looking out for:
Lower abdominal/ pelvic pain
Increased abdominal size
Difficulty eating/ feeling full quickly
Needing to pass urine more often
Other symptoms that can develop:
Pain during sex
Change in bowel habit
Change in bowel habit and sudden development of IBS-like symptoms, particularly later in life, should also raise suspicion.
If you develop any of the above symptoms please see your GP. Simple tests can be arranged to get to the bottom of your symptoms.
How is ovarian cancer diagnosed?
During your initial consultation, your GP will take your history and examine you. They will then further tests including:
Routine blood tests to investigate will be arranged including full blood count, liver function tests and kidney tests. Your GP can also request a for a tumour marker called CA125. This is a protein that is high in eight out 10 women with advanced ovarian cancer, and five out of 10 women with early ovarian cancer.
This is a painless, non-invasive scan. This is the same scan that is used during pregnancy (so no need to be feared!).
And how is it treated?
The treatment of ovarian cancer involves three main treatment options—surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
The treatment advised in each case depends on various factors such as the stage, type and subtype of the cancer and your general health.
In summary, ovarian cancer is something to be taken seriously and early detection is the key to survival. But you know your body best—if you have any of the symptoms, be sure to see your doctor sooner rather than later. And remember, investigations are simple and painless.