Ovarian cancer is very common in the UK. Around 6,500 people are affected by it every year, making it the fifth most common cancer in women after breast, bowel, lung and cervical cancer. It normally affects women after the menopause, but there is a smaller risk to younger women too.
The prognosis for those diagnosed at an early stage is generally good, and 90% of patients survive for at least five years after diagnosis. However, for ovarian cancer to be caught early you must be aware of the signs and symptoms.
The ovaries are small organs in the female reproductive system that are responsible for releasing an egg every month. If a cancerous tumour starts to grow in or on the ovary, it can spread to other areas of the abdomen if left untreated.
The problem with ovarian cancer symptoms is that they can be vague and easily associated with other ailments. For example, bloating, excess gas and constipation are all common ovarian cancer symptoms, but could be misinterpreted as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or another bowel related illness.
Other symptoms include pain during sex, unexplained weight gain, the need to urinate more often and pain in the lower pelvis and abdomen. If the symptoms are persistent and do not respond to initial treatment, it may be worth revisiting your doctor and getting screened for ovarian cancer.
There are many types of ovarian cancer, the most common of which is epithelial ovarian cancer, which develops on the lining of the ovary. 90% of those diagnosed with ovarian cancer have the epithelial type but there is also a germ cell variety, which grows from the eggs in the ovary. Younger women are more likely to suffer from this type.
There are various stages that ovarian cancer progresses through. The first stage is defined by a tumour that is confined to the ovary. If the tumour spreads into the pelvis, the disease progresses to stage two. Most women are diagnosed at stage three, where the tumour has spread from the pelvis to the abdomen. When the cancer spreads to other areas like the chest wall and the liver, it is in the fourth stage.
Ovarian cancer that is still in the first stage can usually be treated with surgery alone. However, chemotherapy is also usually needed if the cancer has progressed beyond that stage.
Doctors are unable to tell for sure what causes ovarian cancer, however it has been linked to various things including weight, genetics, the amount of eggs the ovary has released, smoking and HRT therapy.
While some of the symptoms of ovarian cancer can be ambiguous, it is important that all women who are at risk are alert and aware of the disease. Greater vigilance can lead to an earlier diagnosis, which in turn leads to a better prognosis.