Doctor urges greater awareness of silent ovarian cancer

With only a quarter of cases of ovarian cancer caught early, doctors are urging greater awareness of the ‘silent cancer’. 

Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cancer in the UK, affecting over 7,100 women every year. Only 15% of all ovarian cancers are detected at the early stages1, and sadly three-quarters of cases are only noticed once the cancer has spread.

Professor Gordon J.S. Rustin, Consultant Medical Oncologist at BMI Bishops Wood Hospital, explains why ovarian cancer is difficult to diagnose, and urges women of all ages to be more aware of the symptoms.

What is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer is any cancerous growth that arises from the different parts of the ovaries”, explains Professor Rustin. “In the UK, ovarian cancer is the 5th most common cancer among women, after breast cancer, bowel cancer, lung cancer and uterine cancer (womb).”

Although ovarian cancer is most common in women who have been through the menopause, over 20% of women diagnosed ovarian cancer are under the age of 50. Professor Rustin urges younger women to learn more about the cancer and its symptoms to encourage an early diagnosis.

Ovarian infographic

Why is it called the ‘silent cancer’?

Professor Rustin says, “Ovarian cancer is often called the ‘silent cancer’ as patients do not develop symptoms until after the cancer has spread, causing a more advanced tumour that is more difficult to locate and treat.

“Unfortunately, patients frequently present with advanced disease after the cancer has spread throughout the abdomen. Only a quarter of these cancers are caught early and removed before they have spread, which means more awareness of the symptoms and the need for early diagnosis is needed.”

What are the symptoms?

Many women in the UK are unaware of the symptoms of ovarian cancer or simply dismiss them as something far less serious.

“The symptoms are similar to those of irritable bowel syndrome, but a patient who develops new symptoms of bloating, swelling, change in bowel habit or abdominal pains needs to be investigated,” urges Professor Rustin.

How can you reduce your risks of ovarian cancer?

“While we don’t know the exact causes of ovarian cancer, there are a few things that women can do to take control of their risk,” says Professor Rustin.

He explains that the following factors are known to increase your risk:

Age – “Most cases of ovarian cancer happen after the menopause, which is why around eight in ten cases of the disease are in women over 50”. Therefore, it’s especially that women over the age 50 take extra care to see their doctor if they have any symptoms.

Height and weight – Staying within the healthy weight ratios by eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of exercise can help to reduce a woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer. Professor Rustin explains: “The risk of ovarian cancer is higher in women who have a Body Mass Index (BMI) of over 30, but haven’t been through the menopause yet. Research has also found taller women are more at risk of ovarian cancer than shorter women.” Although a woman cannot reduce her height, taller women should be aware of the symptoms and take necessary precautions when needed.


Smoking – Stopping smoking is one way of reducing your risk of ovarian cancer, as well as other cancers such as lung, mouth and bladder cancer. “Smoking increases the risk of mucinous ovarian tumours,” Professor Rustin says. “If you stop smoking, your risk will eventually go back down to normal.

Breast cancer – Professor Rustin explains: “if you have had breast cancer, you could have twice the risk of ovarian cancer compared to women who haven’t. This is because sometimes breast cancer and ovarian cancer are linked to the same faulty genes”. Women who have had breast cancer should be extra cautions of any symptoms, getting them checked by a doctor immediately.

Family history – “If you have at least two close relatives - your mother, sister or daughter - who have had ovarian or breast cancer, you have a higher risk of developing the condition,” warns Professor Rustin. Women should speak to their relatives to find out about their medical history and make sure any symptoms are checked out by a doctor.

Hormone replacement therapy – Although there are many benefits of HRT, it should be taken for as short a time as possible. Professor Rustin explains that “HRT has been shown to be linked to a rise in the risk of ovarian cancer, especially when using oestrogen-only preparations”.

Fertility – Taking the contraceptive pill could help to reduce your risk of developing ovarian cancer. Professor Ruston says, “when your ovaries release an egg each month, the surface bursts to let it out. Every time this happens your ovary has to repair itself, which means cells need to divide. The more times your ovary produces an egg, the more times it needs to repair itself and the greater the chance of abnormal cell growth. This could be why your risk of ovarian cancer falls if you take the pill, have multiple pregnancies or breastfeed. During these times, your ovaries do not release eggs”.

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