With less than half of cases of ovarian cancer caught early, Professor Gordon J.S. Rustin, Consultant Medical Oncologist at BMI Bishops Wood Hospital, urges greater awareness of the disease often called 'the silent cancer'.
Ovarian cancer is the sixth most common women's cancer in the UK, affecting over 7,500 women every year.
42-45% of women are diagnosed at stage I or II, meaning that the majority of cases are not diagnosed until later stages. Sadly 17-21% of women will only be diagnosed once the cancer has spread.1
What is ovarian cancer?
Ovarian cancer is any cancerous growth that arises from the different parts of the ovaries.
In the UK, ovarian cancer is the sixth most common cancer among women, after breast cancer, lung cancer, bowel cancer, uterine cancer (womb), and skin cancer melanoma.
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.
Because of this, it's really important for younger women to learn more about the cancer and its symptoms so as to encourage early diagnosis.
Why is it called the ‘silent cancer’?
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 significant symptoms only when the disease is advanced and the cancer has spread throughout the abdomen.
With many women being diagnosed at later stages, it's so important to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer, as well as the risk factors.
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.
Symptoms of ovarian cancer can include:
- Felling full quickly
- Loss of appetite
- Pain in your tummy/abdomen that doesn't go away
- Increased need to urinate
- Unexplained tiredness
- Unexplained weight loss
- Changes in your bowel habits (or other IBS-like symptoms)2
Symptoms can be 'vague', meaning that they can suggest other conditions. For example, they may be mistaken for signs of irritable bowel syndrome.
It's important that anyone who develops new symptoms of bloating, swelling, changes in bowel habits or abdominal pains speaks to a doctor to have the symptoms investigated.
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.
Known risk factors for ovarian cancer include:
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
Maintaining a healthy weight for your height by eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of exercise can help to reduce a woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer.
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.
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. If you stop smoking, your risk will eventually go back down to normal.
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.
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.
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.
HRT has been shown to be linked to a rise in the risk of ovarian cancer, especially when using oestrogen-only preparations.
Taking the contraceptive pill could help to reduce your risk of developing ovarian cancer.
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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