09 March 2017
By Miss Nandita Deo,
Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist at Spire Roding Hospital
Cancer of the ovaries is the fifth most common cancer in women in the UK,and over 6,500 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the UK every year. Most of the women are over 50 years of age and have gone through the menopause; however, younger women can also be affected1.
In ovarian cancer, the cancer cells arise from the ovary (the organ that releases eggs) and occasionally from the fallopian tubes that are close to the ovary (primary ovarian cancer). These cells can rapidly spread beyond the ovary to the womb, abdomen and lungs to cause secondary tumours.
What are the causes of ovarian cancer?
In most cases, the cause is unknown. The risk of ovarian cancer is increased with age. More than 8 out of 10 cases are detected in women over 50 years1. Being obese or overweight also predisposes to ovarian cancer. The greater the number of eggs you release during your lifetime (ovulation), the higher is your risk of developing ovarian cancer. Hence, the risk increases if you have not had children and if you have a late menopause. The risk decreases if you have been pregnant, on the oral contraceptive pill or have breast-fed1.
About 1 in 10 ovarian cancers may be familial1. A family history of breast cancer also increases your risk of developing ovarian cancer. See your GP if you think that you or your family member may be at an increased risk and they may refer you to a genetic counselling clinic for further advice and testing.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms are very non-specific, but can be persistent and frequent (usually happen more than 12 times a month). Symptoms include2:
- 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.
Other symptoms can include unexpected weight loss, change in bowel habits, and extreme fatigue. Some women may not experience any symptoms at all prior to diagnosis.
If you are 50 or over and have symptoms that are new for you or are similar to those of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), your GP should offer you tests to check for ovarian cancer. That is because it is unusual for women of this age to develop IBS if they have not had it before.
If you regularly experience any of these symptoms, which are not normal for you, 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 checked out.
Is there a screening test?
There is no screening test for ovarian cancer and the symptoms are very non-specific. Hence a lot of women present after the cancer has spread and in late stages.
The diagnosis can be suspected at ultrasound examination when the ovary appears abnormal. High levels of a protein called CA125 on blood testing may suggest an ovarian cancer. Further testing may include a CT (computerised tomography) scan or an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging). If ovarian cancer is confirmed, a referral will be made to a specialised gynaecological cancer centre for further treatment. Depending on how far the cancer has spread, and how aggressive the cancer is, treatment would include surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
As survival rates of ovarian cancer can be improved with early diagnosis and treatment, it is important that you see your GP if you have on-going symptoms which might be suggestive of ovarian cancer.
Miss Nandita Deo holds clinics on Wednesdays mornings and Fridays evenings.
1 Reference: Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. Information for you: Ovarian Cancer. Patient Information Leaflet. London: RCOG; 2016.
*The content of this article is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the professional medical advice of your doctor or other health care professional.