March is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month in the UK, with Cumbernauld Community Health Information Hub taking the opportunity to explore how the disease manifests and what women can do for prevention and minimising the risks.
The flagship initiative of the charity Target Ovarian Cancer, the campaign aims to raise funds to research a cure and better treatments for the condition, as well as providing key information to encourage women to get checked for any symptoms at the earliest possible stage.
There are around 7,300 new ovarian cancer cases in the UK every year – that’s 20 women every day. It is the sixth most common cancer in females in this country, with over 4,000 deaths each year. Ovarian cancer accounts for 4% of all new cancer cases in women in the UK.
Ovarian cancer is sometimes termed the silent killer because its presenting symptoms are often mistaken for other benign conditions, particularly ones that affect the gastrointestinal system or simply changes in a woman’s body as she ages. As such, the survival rate of 35% at 10 years is lower than some other cancers.
Like all cancers, the key to successful treatment and full recovery is an early diagnosis. That’s why recognising the signs and symptoms and getting appropriate checks are imperative, particularly for women aged 50 or over. It is believed that 11% of ovarian cancer cases in the UK are preventable.
OVARIAN CANCER: KEY INFORMATION GUIDE FOR WOMEN
What is Ovarian Cancer?
The ovaries are a pair of small organs located low in a female’s stomach that are connected to the womb and story a supply of eggs. Ovarian cancer occurs when there are abnormal cells in the ovary which multiply, creating a tumour.
Tumours will either be benign or malignant. Benign tumours are non-cancerous and do not usually spread to other parts of the body. They may require some treatment but are rarely life threatening. If the tumour is malignant it is cancerous and when left untreated may spread to other parts of the body.
There are many different types of ovarian tumours classified by the types of cells and tissue they originate from. Men cannot have ovarian cancer as they do not have ovaries, but instead can have cancers of male reproductive organs such as prostate cancer.
What are the Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer?
Ovarian cancer symptoms can often mimic those of other less serious illnesses, and therefore it can be difficult to determine the difference between some common stomach conditions and ovarian cancer.
Common symptoms of ovarian cancer include feeling constantly bloated, a swollen stomach, discomfort in your stomach or pelvic area, feeling full quickly when eating and needing to urinate more often than usual. Occasionally, other symptoms such as changes in bowel habits, extreme fatigue and unexplained weight loss can occur.
Because the warning signs of ovarian cancer are like those of some more common conditions, if you have any of these symptoms it does not ordinarily mean you have ovarian cancer. It’s more likely they’re caused by something less serious, such as irritable bowel syndrome or menopausal issues. It is, however, very important not to simply ignore these symptoms.
What Should I Do If I Suspect Any of the Above Signs?
Make an appointment with your GP as soon as possible if you have any concerns in relation to the above signs or symptoms. Remember, the sooner you get checked out the better things will be, either in terms of putting your mind at rest or getting the right treatment.
Your GP may do a physical examination of the stomach at the appointment, including feeling for any swelling of lumps. They may also do an internal examination, ask about your symptoms and general health and enquire if there is a history of ovarian or breast cancer in your family.
If they’re not sure what’s causing the symptoms, they may order a CA125 blood test in the first instance. This test checks for a protein substance called CA125 which is produced by some ovarian cells.
A high level of CA125 in blood could be a sign of ovarian cancer. However, a raised CA125 level does not mean you definitely have cancer, as it can also be caused by other conditions such as endometriosis, fibroids and even pregnancy. Equally, CA125 levels can be normal in the early stages of ovarian cancer. If you’ve had a normal blood test result but your symptoms do not improve, go back to the GP as you may need to be re-tested.
If the test shows a high level of CA125, you will probably be referred for an ultrasound scan to check for possible causes. If any abnormalities are found, you may be referred to a specialist consultant (usually a gynaecologist) for further tests, investigations and advice.
Ignoring symptoms or trying to self-diagnosis is not recommended under any circumstances. It’s always sensible to see a GP if you are having symptoms, no matter how bothersome or not.
What are the Causes of Ovarian Cancer and How Can I Minimise Any Risk?
It’s not fully understood what causes ovarian cancer, but a number of risk factors for developing the condition have been identified.
Risk factors for ovarian cancer include age (it mainly affects women aged 50 or over although it can happen in younger women too), being very overweight, smoking, using talcum powder between the legs, having hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and having a history of certain health conditions, such as endometriosis or diabetes.
About 15-20% of ovarian cancer cases are believed to be caused by an inherited gene. Women who inherit a mutated copy of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene have a much higher risk of developing breast and / or ovarian cancer than the general population. As such, there is an increased risk to those who have a close relative who has had breast or ovarian cancer. In most cases, however, the cancer is sporadic and not related to an inherited gene.
As with most cancers, making some lifestyle changes can reduce the risk of ovarian cancer. Changes can include stopping smoking, eating a healthy diet, being physically active, keeping to a healthy weight and following recommended alcohol guidelines.
Monitoring Options for Women at Higher Risk of Ovarian Cancer
There’s currently no national screening programme for ovarian cancer in the UK. This is because whilst being an indicator, the CA125 blood cannot reliably diagnose ovarian cancer at an early stage. This does not mean that you cannot ask your GP for a CA125 blood test, particularly if you are aged 50 or over.
Individuals can be put on the UK Familial Ovarian Cancer Registry if they are determined to be at a greater risk of ovarian cancer (see above). This can be assessed by discussing your medical history with your doctor. This programme incorporates regular testing to try and find ovarian or breast cancer at an early stage. Other options such as surgery to remove ovaries may be discussed if your risk is deemed higher.
Treatment Options and Living With Ovarian Cancer
If you do receive an ovarian cancer diagnosis, treatment will depend on how far it has spread, your general health and whether you’re still able to have children. Most people have a combination of surgery and chemotherapy as treatment.
The aim of treatment is to cure the cancer, if possible. If the cancer is too advanced to be cured, treatment aims to relieve symptoms and control the cancer for as long as possible. Those diagnosed are cared for by a team of NHS healthcare professionals who are experts in creating treatment and support plans for individuals with ovarian cancer.
To show your support during Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, you can accept Ovarian Cancer Action’s challenge to raise funds and awareness by organising or taking part in a Walk In Her Name event. Sponsorship money raised will go towards progressing research for women affected by ovarian cancer.
Alternatively or additionally, you can get behind the fight against prostate cancer by donating to or volunteering with organisations such as Target Ovarian Cancer, Cancer Research UK, MacMillan Cancer Support, Cancer Support Scotland or Maggie’s Lanarkshire, to name just a few.
Further detailed information about ovarian cancer, including a Patient Hub providing advice and information for those affected, can be obtained by visiting Ovarian Cancer Action’s website at www.ovarian.org.uk. The organisation can also be contacted by telephone on 020 7380 1830 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. A range of useful information about the disease can also be read on the NHS website’s Ovarian Cancer page.
Also During March 2020… Prostate Cancer Awareness Month: Key Advice, Information and Support for Men