Ovarian cancer: what you need to know

March is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month and Mr Sotiris Vimplis, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at Spire Roding, talks about ovarian cancer and what you need to know about it.

What is it?

Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cancer in women with around 7,000 new cases diagnosed in the UK each year. There are often delays between onset of symptoms and diagnosis. It can be easy to dismiss the symptoms but if you think something has changed with your body, don’t ignore it. And don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor or a specialist.

What causes it?

In most cases, the reason why ovarian cancer develops is unknown. If two or more relatives from the same side of your family have had ovarian or breast cancer, you may have a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer yourself. But only one in ten cases is caused by an inherited faulty gene.

The risk also increases with age and most cases occur in women over the age of 50. Starting your period before 12, going through the menopause after 50, having your first child after 30 or not having any children are also risk factors for ovarian cancer.

What are the symptoms?

It is important that women are aware of the symptoms, so that they can seek advice as early as possible. There is now agreement that the three most common symptoms of ovarian cancer are

  • Abdominal or pelvic pain that is experienced most days
  • Bloating that persists and does not come and go
  • Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly

Many of us get symptoms like these from time to time. However, the symptoms of ovarian cancer are distinct in that they are new (started in the last 12 months), persistent, frequent (more than 12 days a month) and getting progressively worse.

 How is it diagnosed?

If you are experiencing the symptoms of ovarian cancer your GP should do a CA125 blood test. Depending on the results of this blood test, he may recommend an ultrasound of your abdomen and ovaries.

Ovarian cancer may be suspected if an ovary appears abnormal on an ultrasound scan. Abnormal blood tests such as high levels of a protein called CA125 can make it more likely that it is malignant.

You are likely to be offered a CT scan (computed tomography scan) or an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) of your abdomen and pelvis. If cancer is confirmed, you will be referred to a specialist gynaecology cancer centre to plan treatment.

What are the treatment options?

Treatment depends on the stage and grade of the cancer, patient’s general health and her own wishes.

Surgery usually involves removing both ovaries and the fallopian tubes, womb and cervix and the layer of fatty tissue in the abdomen known as the omentum. Biopsies and some lymph nodes may also be taken from your abdomen and pelvis.

Chemotherapy is usually given after surgery. Sometimes it may be given before surgery, usually to help shrink the tumour and to make it easier to remove.

It is important to remember that at the moment, there is no screening test reliable enough to use to check for ovarian cancer in the general population. Early diagnosis is the best chance of survival.

Mr Sotiris Vimplis MBBS (Hons) MRCOG, Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist at Spire Roding Hospital

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