Ovarian cancer is the biggest gynaecological killer of UK women, with UK survival rates among the worst in Europe. Three quarters of women are diagnosed once the cancer has spread, thus, making treatment more difficult. That is why awareness is so important, to drive forward improvements in detection, treatment and ultimately survival.
Once a woman is diagnosed at the earliest stage, her chance of surviving ovarian cancer for five years or more doubles from just 46% to more than 90%. However, nearly half of GPs mistakenly believe symptoms only present in the later stages of the disease.
What is ovarian cancer?
The ovaries are two small glands that make up part of the female reproductive system. They have two main functions: to produce and store eggs for reproduction, and to produce the female sex hormones oestrogen and progesterone. Ovarian cancer occurs when abnormal cells in the ovary start to multiply, creating a tumour. If a tumour is malignant it is cancerous and, left unchecked, may grow and spread to other parts of the body.
There are three types of ovarian tumour: epithelial, germ cell and sex-cord stromal. Around 90% of ovarian cancer tumours are epithelial, the majority of which are known as serous epithelial ovarian cancer. Most noteworthy, these tumours occur most commonly in women between the ages of 40 and 60.
Symptoms are frequent (12+ times a month) and persistent, and include:
- Increased abdominal size/persistent bloating (not bloating that comes and goes)
- Difficulty eating/feeling full
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
- Needing to wee more urgently or more often
In addition, other symptoms can include unexpected weight loss, change in bowel habits, and extreme fatigue.
Therefore, if you regularly experience any of these symptoms, it is important that you see your GP. It is unlikely that your symptoms are caused by a serious problem, but it is important to be sure.
Is it Common?
Ovarian cancer is the 4th most common form of cancer death in women, after breast, lung and bowel cancer. However, the average GP will see only one case of ovarian cancer every five years.
Each year in the UK there are approximately:
- 7,300 cases of ovarian cancer1. This is roughly 140 women each week
- 4,100 deaths from ovarian cancer2
Why is early diagnosis so important?
Most women are diagnosed once the cancer has already spread therefore treatment is more challenging. The current five-year survival rate for ovarian cancer is 46%. If diagnosed at the earliest stage, up to 90% of women would survive five years or more3. Therefore, this is why early diagnosis is so important.
- Research has shown that just 4 per cent of women in the UK are very confident about recognising a symptom of ovarian cancer4
- Delays in diagnosing ovarian cancer are not uncommon. 41% of women reported having to visit their GP 3 times or more before being referred for diagnostic tests5
What increases the risk of someone developing this type of cancer?
The two most important aspects affecting a woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer during her lifetime are age, and family history6.
- The risk of ovarian cancer increases with age, and particularly after the menopause. Most cases will occur in women who have gone through the menopause.
- Most cases of ovarian cancer are ‘sporadic’ or one offs. This means that close female relatives of someone with ovarian cancer do not necessarily face an increased risk of developing the disease themselves. However, in around 1/10 cases, a family link is identified. If a woman has two or more close family relatives with a history of ovarian cancer, or ovarian cancer and/or breast cancer then she should discuss her family history with her doctor. Due to this, it is important that both sides of a woman’s family (mother and father) should be considered.
Can anything reduce the risks?
There are a number of things which significantly reduce a woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer, but none offer complete protection.
- Having children
- Taking the oral contraceptive pill for a number of years
Can Ovarian Cancer confused with other conditions?
The symptoms of ovarian cancer are often similar to those of other less serious but more common conditions. However, the increased frequency and persistency of the symptoms are what help to distinguish between ovarian cancer and other conditions. Therefore, it should be noted that women 50+ rarely develop irritable bowel syndrome. Hence, should a GP think this is the case, they should make sure they have considered other causes such as ovarian cancer7. In conclusion: Be Sure!