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What you need to know about ovarian cancer


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March is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month and it’s about time.

Unlike cervical and breast cancers, there is currently no screening program in the UK. Despite this, 7,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer every year and every day, 11 women die due to this disease. A lack of awareness of the symptoms means that two-thirds of women are diagnosed only once the cancer has spread.

We need to stop this!

Here’s our quick guide to ovarian cancer, the symptoms and where you can find further help and support. Share it with all the women in your life and let's get the message out there. 

What are the ovaries?

The ovaries are part of the female reproductive system. Most women have two and they are responsible for storing a woman’s eggs and producing the hormones oestrogen and progesterone. Ovarian cancer affects the tissues of the ovaries and the fallopian tubes which connect the ovaries to the uterus.

Who is affected? 

Obviously, only women can get ovarian cancer, with the majority of cases occurring in women after menopause. However, younger women can also develop the disease, so being aware whatever your age is a huge step towards finding and treating the cancer.

The majority of ovarian cancers are ‘sporadic’, meaning that there is no raised risk to any relatives of someone with the disease. Around 15 to 20% of ovarian cancers are due to hereditary factors. Having a family member, such as a mother or sister, who has had ovarian and/or breast cancer could mean you have a heightened risk of developing the cancers yourself. 

What are the symptoms? 

Recent research has shown that only one in five women can name bloating as a symptom of ovarian cancer, so let’s get these symptoms straight. They’re easily overlooked or put down to things such as a poor diet, but if they are new, frequent (they happen more than 12 times a month) and persistent, you should see your GP.

Symptoms include bloating, losing your appetite or feeling full quickly, pelvic or abdominal pain (that’s below your stomach) and an increased need or urgency to urinate. You might also suffer from diarrhoea or constipation, suffer from extreme fatigue and lose weight inexplicably.

These can all be symptomatic of other, non-cancerous problems, but if you have one or more of these symptoms, you should get a GP to take a look. For post-menopausal women, any bleeding should always be investigated. 

I’ve had a smear test and it came back clear. Am I okay? 

Smear tests – or cervical screening, to give it the medical term – do not screen for ovarian cancer. They’re a great way to check for cervical cancer, and women should have a smear test when they turn 25 and every three years afterwards. But they cannot tell whether you have ovarian cancer, nor can the HPV vaccination you might have received in the past guard against it. Ovarian cancer is something very different. If you have the symptoms listed above, it doesn’t matter what your smear test results were: you should see your GP. 

What might the GP do if I go to them with any concerns? 

Before your GP appointment, it’s worth finding out if there is any history in the family so you can provide as full a picture as possible. You might also want to track your symptoms so you have evidence of their persistence and frequency.

Your GP should send you for a blood test and may consider an ultrasound scan of your abdomen. Dependent upon what they find, the next steps will vary: you should talk things over with them. 

Whilst your symptoms may be due to other non-cancerous problems, if they persist, don’t be afraid to seek a second opinion. Ovarian cancer can be difficult to diagnose, but if you think there is something wrong, you need to keep going. 

What can affect my chances of developing ovarian cancer? 

Whilst there is no specific cause of ovarian cancer, certain lifestyle choices and conditions can raise or lower your chances of developing ovarian cancer. Smoking has been linked to an increased risk of some ovarian cancers, whilst conditions such as diabetes and endometriosis have also been shown to raise the likelihood. 

Perhaps surprisingly, using talcum powder between your legs has been shown to have a very slight impact on your risk of developing cancer. Use of Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) by menopausal women has also been linked to an increase in the likelihood of developing ovarian cancer. 

Like any cancer, a healthy lifestyle, including a balanced diet and exercise, can reduce your risk of ovarian cancer by keeping your weight down. In addition, using the combined contraceptive pill, pregnancy and breastfeeding, and having a hysterectomy and/or sterilisation are protective factors in the development of ovarian cancer. 

However, it should be stated that none of these protective measures can prevent ovarian cancer – they may simply lower the likelihood of cancer cells developing in that area of your body. Furthermore, the benefits of HRT or the side-effects of the combined contraceptive pill may outweigh the impact they have on your chance of developing ovarian cancer. Any decisions should be talked over with your GP. 

What if I am diagnosed? 

A common treatment for ovarian cancer is surgery to remove some or all of the ovarian tissue. The stage the cancer is at upon diagnosis will dictate both the extent of the surgery and whether chemotherapy is necessary afterwards. Your specialist should discuss all treatments with you. 

A concern, particularly for younger women, is the impact this may have on their fertility. Again, this is something to discuss with a specialist if that bridge needs to be crossed. 

Where else can I find information and support for ovarian cancer? 

Whilst we would urge anybody with serious concerns over ovarian cancer to see their GP, there are other places to gain more information or support if you want to before taking that step. 

Target Ovarian Cancer has a wealth of information about ovarian cancer. Alongside the website, they offer a nurse-led support line where you can speak to a qualified nurse about any concerns you may have. 

Both the NHS website and Cancer Research UK also provide basic factual information in an easy-to-read format, including links to further agencies who can offer support and guidance. 

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