Ovarian Cancer Awareness Week, 2018
Ovarian cancer is still the deadliest women’s cancer. Unfortunately, this has not changed in 30 years. Every day in Australia, four women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer and three will die from the disease. This year, it is estimated that 1,580 Australian women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer and a further 1,047 women will die from the disease. Unfortunately, there is no early detection test available, so raising awareness of the disease – particularly signs, symptoms, and risk factors – is essential.
February is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month with Teal Ribbon Day on February 22nd and in 2018, it is about making a stand – it’s time for action. We’ll learn a bit more about how you can take action later on, but first, let’s learn a bit more about ovarian cancer.
What is ovarian cancer?
Ovarian cancer is a disease where some of the cells in one or both ovaries start to grow abnormally and develop into cancer.
The ovaries are two small, almond-shaped organs that are part of the female reproductive system. Each ovary measures about 2-4cm across and they sit on either side of the uterus.
Image credit: https://oncofertility.northwestern.edu
Each ovary contains cells that eventually develop into eggs. The ovaries also produce the hormones oestrogen and progesterone, which regulate your menstrual cycle and help you to develop the body characteristics that make you female.
There are four main types of ovarian cancer which are named after the type of cells in the ovary where the cancer begins growing.
Because there is no early detection test for ovarian cancer, every woman needs to know the signs and symptoms. Make sure you do!
Signs and Symptoms
Ovarian cancer can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms are ones that many women will experience from time to time and are often symptoms of more common, less serious health issues. However, women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer most frequently report four types of symptoms:
- abdominal or pelvic pain
- increased abdominal size or persistent abdominal bloating
- needing to urinate often or urgently
- feeling full after eating a small amount
Ovarian cancer is NOT a silent disease. If you are experiencing any of those symptoms, they are new for you, and you have experienced them multiple times over a 4-week period, then it is essential you visit your GP.
Other symptoms to be aware of include:
- changes in bowel habits
- unexplained weight gain or weight loss
- bleeding in between periods or after menopause
- back pain
- indigestion or nausea
- excessive fatigue
- pain during intercourse
Be aware, but not alarmed!
These symptoms are very common and most often women who are experiencing these symptoms will not have ovarian cancer. However, once more common causes of these symptoms have been ruled out and there is no other clear reason, your doctor should consider the possibility of ovarian cancer and test accordingly.
There are several tests available to assist in the diagnosis of ovarian cancer. These include:
- physical examination – this may include an internal pelvic examination to check for a mass or lump in the lower abdomen or pelvis
- blood tests – your blood will be tested for a protein or tumour marker called CA125 which is often higher than normal in women with ovarian cancer
- ultrasound – a transvaginal (internal) ultrasound is used to create images of the ovaries. It is important that an internal ultrasound is used as it gives a much clearer picture of the ovaries than an external or abdominal ultrasound and is therefore less likely to miss any pathology
- other imaging such as x-rays, CT scan or MRI
There isn’t one single test that can be used to diagnose ovarian cancer, therefore your doctor will use a combination of tests to make a diagnosis. Most commonly a blood test and a transvaginal ultrasound are used. If these tests strongly suggest ovarian cancer, your doctor will recommend an operation which is the only definite way to diagnose ovarian cancer.
Always remember that you know your body better than anyone else, so always listen to your body and trust your instincts. If you are not satisfied with your doctor’s diagnosis or you are still experiencing persistent, unexplained symptoms, be sure to seek a second opinion.
Treatment of ovarian cancer is best managed by a gynaecological oncologist. It usually involves a combination of surgery and chemotherapy. Less often, it may also include radiotherapy.
The first treatment for ovarian cancer is usually an operation called a laparotomy. The laparotomy usually begins with the surgeon performing a biopsy of the tumour to confirm the diagnosis of cancer, as well as more information about the type and extent of your cancer. This is followed by removal of the ovaries and other surrounding tissues as required.
Following surgery, most women with ovarian cancer will require chemotherapy to slow or stop the growth of cancer cells. Even though most of the tumour may have been removed during surgery, there may be some cancer cells left and chemotherapy will help to stop them actively growing.
The causes of ovarian cancer are currently unknown, however there are some factors that may increase a woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer. These include:
- age – ovarian cancer is most common in women over 50 and women who have stopped menstruating, and the risk increases with age (although ovarian cancer can affect women of all ages)
- genetics and family history – a woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer may be increased if two or more relatives from the same side of her family have been affected by ovarian or ovarian and breast cancer. This is most often a result of an inherited faulty gene (BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation). Genetics and family history are responsible for 15-20% of ovarian cancers
- child-bearing history – women who have not had children, are unable to have children, have never used oral contraceptives or have had children over the age of 30 may be slightly more at risk due to the ovaries not having a “rest” from the break and repair of the surface of the ovary when women ovulate each month
- endometriosis – a condition where the tissue lining of the uterus (endometrium) is also found on the outside of the uterus
- lifestyle factors – such as smoking, being overweight or eating a high fat diet
- hormonal factors – including early puberty (menstruating before the age of 12) or late menopause (onset after 50)
KNOW the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer.
ASK for help if you have symptoms, or ask others if they know the symptoms of ovarian cancer.
ACT by hosting an Afternoon Teal or donating so that Ovarian Cancer Australia can continue to support women with ovarian cancer.
To help with #KnowAskAct, Ovarian Cancer Australia have created the following infographic to highlight important information about ovarian cancer:
Poster courtesy of Ovarian Cancer Australia.
Remember that early detection leads to greater outcomes, so always listen to your body and contact your health care practitioner if you have any concerns. You can find more helpful resources over at the Ovarian Cancer Australia website, including Need to know signs, and an Awareness poster.