March is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month in the UK.
There are a number of myths and facts about ovarian cancer that are spread around, some due to incorrect information available to the public and others due to misdiagnosis from the medical world - and that includes using the phrase "the silent killer".
Ovarian cancer is currently the UK's most deadly gynaecological disease.
According to the charity Ovarian Cancer Action there are over 7000 women a year diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the UK, and that ovarian cancer is actually more common than cervical cancer and claims more lives. In fact almost a third of women mistakenly think that cervical screening will detect ovarian cancer.
The charity Target Ovarian Cancer say that only 4% of women are aware of the symptoms of Ovarian cancer and that half of the women confused ovarian cancer with cervical cancer. They also say that 4100 women lose their lives to ovarian cancer each year, which is 11 women every day.
Target Ovarian Cancer want people to stop referring to the disease as a silent killer, as that implies it can only be diagnosed in the later stages which is in fact untrue. Early diagnosis is possible if we are aware of which signs to look out for and if medical health professionals are trained to spot symptoms early.
Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer
There is no current screening programme for ovarian cancer in the UK so awareness of symptoms is key to getting an early diagnosis for this disease. Unfortunately, the symptoms can mimic a number of other things, so this has been known to delay or confirm diagnosis by 6 months. By which time the disease will have spread making the treatment and survival rates much lower. If ovarian cancer is caught early it has a 90% survival rate for the first 5 years.
Ovarian cancer used to be known as the 'silent killer' as it was thought there were no physical symptoms of the disease in the early stages. However, with research it has been shown that this is not totally accurate and that there are a few symptoms that could indicate ovarian cancer.
Some of these symptoms are:
- Persistent pelvic or abdominal pain
- Persistent bloating or increased abdominal size
- Feeling full up quickly or difficulty in eating
- Needing to urinate more frequently or urgently
These symptoms would be frequent (usually happen more than 12 times a month), persistent and new to you.
Many of these symptoms can easily be confused with other conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, urinary tract infection, stomach ulcers or other digestive disorder.
Both Ovarian Cancer Action and Target Ovarian Cancer suggest that women keep a symptoms diary so that they can see how frequently they are experiencing symptoms and which symptoms they have. This way they can give their GP the full information to help them to make an early diagnosis. Both of the charities have a link to a symptoms app too which can be used with any smart device.
Tests to detect Ovarian Cancer
Your doctor can order a simple blood test called the CA125 test. This will give them an indication about whether further tests need to be done.
If they do need more tests then they would suggest an internal ultrasound of the ovaries and an external scan of the tummy.
If these tests indicate that cancer could be present then you would be referred to a specialist who could do MRI scans or an abdominal fluid aspiration. For some women surgery is the only real way to correctly diagnose ovarian cancer.
Who's at risk?
Ovarian Cancer Action state the following for higher risk:
There are a number of factors which can affect your risk of getting ovarian cancer:
Family history: If you have two or more relatives from the same side of your family (ie from either your mother's OR father's side), affected by ovarian, or ovarian and breast cancer, your risk may be increased. For full details see below.
Age: The majority of cases occur in women over the age of 40. However some types of ovarian cancer do appear in women from the age of 20 onwards.
Childbirth: There is a slightly increased risk to women who have not had children, or breastfed.
Weight: Being overweight may also increase risk.
Ethnicity: Women who are descended from Ashkenazi Jewish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Dutch, Pakistani and Polish populations have been shown to have an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. Research has shown that these women have a higher incidence of carrying a faulty gene, responsible for inherited risk of developing ovarian cancer.
Other factors: Outside of the risk factors mentioned above, very little is currently known about the causes of ovarian cancer. This is why research into the disease is so important.
One current area of research is whether women on HRT are at a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer. Some research has shown that the different types of HRT have varying levels of risk. The Millennium Study 2007, found that women who take the combined HRT for longer than five years are at an increased risk. Following termination of HRT use, this risk returns to a normal level.
Factors that may help reduce your risk
Childbirth: the more children you have, the less likely you are to have ovarian cancer.
Taking the contraceptive pill: A 2008 study indicated that if women take the contraceptive pill over a prolonged time period, there is a lesser risk of developing ovarian cancer - this reduction in risk continued 30 years after women ceased taking the contraceptive pill
Breast feeding: research suggests that breastfeeding could provide a preventative effect for ovarian cancer
Having a hysterectomy or having your fallopian tubes removed
There is some evidence that some painkillers may reduce your risk but further research is needed on this subject
Do you want to know more about Ovarian cancer, or do you want to help raise awareness of Ovarian cancer with both women and doctors/healthcare experts? Why not take a look at the following links where they have further information and downloads:
The NICE guidelines for Ovarian Cancer can be found online for GPs and healthcare experts
This blog post was originally written in March 2017 and has been updated in March 2019.