The ovaries are two small organs in the pelvis, that store and release the eggs in the monthly cycle, ready to make babies in women of child-bearing age. They don’t have very much function after the menopause.
One of the ovaries can develop cancer, and it particularly affects women over 50 years old. Sadly, ovarian cancer is often diagnosed late, which means it carries a higher chance of death than some other cancers.
Ovarian cancer is often diagnosed late as symptoms can be subtle and mistaken for other conditions. Abdominal bloating and swelling, pain in the pelvis and feeling full quickly can be some of the signs.
It can cause non-specific symptoms like weight loss, fatigue and back pain, but there can be numerous causes for these. It can also cause a change in bowels habits or increased frequency of urination. Again, these don’t lead directly to thinking of ovarian cancer, so it’s worth seeing your doctor if you experience any of these.
Age is the biggest risk factor for ovarian cancer. Certain genes increase your risk of developing ovarian cancer, and these include BRCA 1 and BRCA 2, which you may have heard of in relation to breast cancer risk.
You are at higher risk if a member of your family has had cancer of the ovary, if you've had endometriosis or you are overweight or obese.
Oestrogen is thought to increase your risk. Longer exposure to oestrogen can be from starting periods early, or starting the menopause late, if you’ve never been pregnant or if you take hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for menopausal symptoms. Any of these may put you at higher risk.
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms, any medication and relevant family history. They will examine your abdomen and pelvis by feeling on the top and – with your consent - performing an intimate examination with a gloved finger passed inside the vagina. This allows them to feel for any lumps, bumps or certain pain points.
Blood tests can help review your overall general health, but a specific test called CA-125 is a blood tumour marker that indicates ovarian cancer, along with other positive test results.
With any suspicion of ovarian cancer, your doctor will refer you urgently to a gynaecologist.
If you have a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer, your doctor may refer you to a geneticist who will test for certain inherited genes. This will help formulate a management plan for you going forward.
Treatment for ovarian cancer depends on the type of ovarian cell that has become cancerous, how far advanced it is, and whether it has spread to lymph nodes or other organs. Women are mostly offered surgery and chemotherapy.
Survival will depend on multiple factors, such as type and stage of cancer, your overall health and your age. Overall, 7 in every 10 women survive beyond the first year, and nearly half survive to five years or more after diagnosis.
Ovacome and Target Ovarian Cancer are two charities in the UK offering information and support for those affected by ovarian cancer.
There are ways to reduce your risk such as considering taking birth control pills. Birth control pills reduce the risk of ovarian cancer but it’s important to discuss the risks vs benefits of taking them with your doctor.
With certain inherited genes that increase your risk, you may be offered surgery to remove your ovaries early, and therefore reduce your risk of developing cancer in the future.
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