March is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. Ovarian cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in women and although it mainly affects women who have been through the menopause, it can sometimes affect younger women too. Each year in the UK, 7,400 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
What is ovarian cancer?
The ovaries are two small organs, each about the size and shape of an almond, that form part of the female reproductive system. Located in the lower abdomen, they are connected to the womb and produce, store and release eggs as well as producing the female sex hormones, oestrogen and progesterone.
Ovarian cancer occurs when there are abnormal cells in the ovary which multiply, creating a tumour (also known as a neoplasm). Such tumours will be either benign (non-cancerous) which may need some treatment but are rarely life-threatening, malignant (cancerous) which will require treatment and if left untreated, have the potential to spread to other parts of the body or borderline (between malignant and benign.
What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?
Ovarian cancer has four main symptoms:
- Persistent stomach pain
- Persistent bloating
- Difficulty eating/feeling full more quickly
- Needing to pass urine more frequently
Other symptoms might also include: back pain, changes in bowel habits (going more often or a lot less), and extreme tiredness for no obvious reason.
These can also be symptoms of other, less serious, conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, ovarian cysts and polycystic ovary syndrome so if you’re experiencing them it doesn’t necessarily mean you have ovarian cancer. If your symptoms are persistent, severe, frequent or out of the ordinary, you should keep a record of them and make an appointment with your GP.
Risk factors for ovarian cancer:
- Having a family history of ovarian or breast cancer, or certain other cancers;15-20% of ovarian cancers can be due to gene mutations (often the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene)
- Being 50 years and older
- Taking HRT (hormone replacement therapy) is associated with a small increase in risk
- Being overweight or obese is associated with a small increase in risk
- Endometriosis is associated with a small increase in risk
- Smoking can increase the risk of certain types of ovarian cancer
Factors that can lower the risk for ovarian cancer:
- If you have taken the contraceptive pill in the past
- If you have had children (the more children you’ve had, the lower your risk)
- If you breastfed your children
- If you have had a hysterectomy or been sterilised (had your tubes tied)
Is ovarian cancer hereditary?
If two or more relatives from the same side of your family have had ovarian cancer under the age of 50, or there has been more than one case of ovarian and breast cancer in your family, you may have a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer.
This may be because you have inherited a BRCA1/2 gene mutation. BRCA1/2 gene mutations are associated with an up to 60% chance of developing ovarian cancer. You can Ovarian.org’s BRCA hub for all the information, advice and support you need about BRCA1/2 gene mutations.
Is there a screen for ovarian cancer?
Unfortunately, there is still no reliable, effective screening method for ovarian cancer.
The Cancer 30 Gene Panel available through Preventicum does test for the BRAC1 and BRAC2 genes as well as some of the other genes associated with ovarian cancer – RAD51C and RAD51D, BRIP1 and those associated with Lynch Syndrome, with access to a geneticist prior to the test being carried out and once the results are available. Otherwise, there is genetic testing available where there are family members who have been affected by ovarian cancer and other associated cancers though other channels.