Ovarian Cancer

WHO IS AFFECTED?

Over 7,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the UK each year. This makes ovarian cancer the 5th most common cancer in women, after breast, lung, bowel and womb cancer. More than eight out of 10 ovarian cancers occur in women over the age of 50.

WHAT ARE THE RISK FACTORS?

About nine out of 10 tumours of the ovary are diagnosed as epithelial ovarian cancer. In these cases, the cancer may have started in the surface layer covering the ovary. Cancers may have started development in the fallopian tube. We don’t know exactly what causes epithelial ovarian cancer, but some factors may increase the risk while other factors seem to reduce it. The risk of ovarian cancer may be increased by the following factors:

Getting Older

As with most cancers, the risk of developing ovarian cancer increases as you get older. Most cases are in women who have had their menopause.

Inherited Faulty Genes

Most ovarian cancers are due to gene changes that develop during a woman’s life and are not inherited. About one to two in 10 ovarian cancers are caused by an inherited faulty gene. Faulty inherited genes (mutations) that increase the risk of ovarian cancer include BRCA1 and BRCA2. These genes also increase the risk of breast cancer. If you have very close relatives who have had ovarian cancer or breast cancer you may be more at risk of developing ovarian cancer than other women. Having relatives with ovarian cancer does not necessarily mean that you have a faulty inherited gene in the family. We also now know that over 4 out of 10 women with ovarian cancer who have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation may not have a family history. Tests can now check for faulty BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes.

Previous Breast Cancer

Breast cancer and ovarian cancer can sometimes be due to the same faulty genes. Women who have had breast cancer have up to double the risk of developing ovarian cancer compared to other women in the population, and if their breast cancer was diagnosed before the age of 40, their risk is around four times higher.

Other possible risk factors include infertility, long-term use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT), being overweight, a diet high in animal fats, and having endometriosis.

WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?

Many women with a very early stage of ovarian cancer often don’t have any symptoms at all. The symptoms may be very vague but can include:

  • Feeling bloated (having a swollen tummy)
  • Feeling full quickly and / or loss of appetite
  • Pain or discomfort in the lower tummy area and / or back
  • Needing to pass urine more often or more urgently
  • Changes in bowel habits
  • Constipation
  • Weight gain or weight loss
  • Unexplained or extreme tiredness

If you have any of the symptoms listed above, particularly if

  • They are not normal for you
  • They are persistent
  • There are repeated episodes
  • They do not go away

… be sure to visit your doctor for a check up.

Remember, most women with symptoms like these do not have cancer. Your awareness of your symptoms is the first and most important step – early diagnosis can save lives.

HOW IS IT TREATED?

Most women with a new diagnosis of ovarian cancer are treated with a combination of surgery and chemotherapy. It is important to be treated at a cancer centre where specialists will discuss and put together a treatment plan for you.