This week's post will focus on a specific cancer type. Ovarian cancer is known as a “silent killer” because its symptoms are usually hard to spot. It’s highly likely that my Auntie/Godmother had ovarian cancer but didn’t know until it had spread. She died five days before her 30th birthday, having collapsed and fallen into a coma a few days previously. She left two very young children. This post is dedicated to her, my godmother, Georgia.
The ovaries are part of the female reproductive system along with the vagina, uterus (womb) and fallopian tubes. You have two ovaries, one of the left and one on the right. Each month, a fertile woman will produce an egg in each ovary. The ovaries are also responsible for producing the female sex hormones, oestrogen and progesterone, throughout a woman’s childbearing years. These hormones control your menstrual cycle and as you approach menopause, the amount of hormone produced lessens and your periods eventually stop completely.
A cyst is a sack filled with fluid. Fertile woman develop cysts each month as their eggs are developed. They are not usually cancerous or anything to worry about. However, sometimes they appear larger than normal or are there for longer than normal and at this point they should be investigated. Any post menopausal woman developing cysts should also be investigated. If your cysts are painful or cause you to develop symptoms then you should see your doctor ASAP.
At the moment, ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cancer in females. Epithelial ovarian cancer makes up over 90% of ovarian cancer cases. Epithelial simply means surface layer. So the cancer is in the surface layer of the ovary.
Currently, not much is known about the causes of this type of cancer. As you all will know, your risk of developing any cancer rising with age and the same applies for ovarian. Family history is an important factor as statistics show about 1 in every 10 cases of ovarian cancer are caused by an inherited faulty gene. It is thought that my cousin Georgie's Li Fraumeni Syndrome was inherited from his mother. We don’t know this for certain but if it is correct then it is safe to assume her cancer was caused by the same syndrome. Other possible risks for ovarian cancer include infertility, the use of HRT treatments, being tall or overweight, endometriosis and the use of talcum powder. Please don’t be panicked by this list; it doesn’t mean everybody gets ovarian cancer.
Screening for Ovarian Cancer:
Unfortunately there is not a screening test available to screen for ovarian cancer safely, accurately and reliably. There are clinical trials taking place to discover one but at the moment there is not a general screening test available for all members of public.
Some women are at higher risk of developing ovarian cancer then others. If you are unfortunate enough to have two of more family members of the same side (so either maternal or paternal) that have been diagnosed with ovarian or breast cancer at a young age then you are at a higher risk of developing the disease, especially if those relatives were diagnosed at a young age (before 50)
If this applies to you then please speak to your GP about going to your local genetics service. They will be able to look into your family history with you and offer you some counselling and advice about screening.
Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer:
As previously mentioned, ovarian cancer symptoms are very hard to find, especially at the early stages. Many women in the early stages of ovarian cancer don’t report any symptoms at all. Symptoms can become apparent when the cancer has spread from the ovary. Sufferers of advanced ovarian cancer will display more symptoms. I will list some symptoms to look out for:
Early Symptoms– pain in lower abdomen or side and a bloated feeling in the abdomen.
Symptoms when The Cancer has Spread– abdominal pain, back pain, passing more urine than normal, constipation, pain during sex, swollen abdomen, irregular periods and bleeding after the menopause
Advanced Symptoms- loss of appetite, feeling sick, being sick, constipation, tiredness, shortness of breath, a noticeable swelling in abdomen
As I mention all the time, the key to surviving cancer is diagnosing it as early as possible so if you suspect anything at all, or are worried about symptoms, please make an appointment with your doctor as soon as you possibly can. Particular symptoms require urgent attention from your doctor:
- Swelling or bloating of the abdomen
- Back pain
- Urinary symptoms
- Tummy pain
If your doctor is concerned, they will do a full pelvic ultrasound including an internal examination, which can be uncomfortable. If there is a lump or cause for concern then they will arrange for you to have an ultrasound scan and it will go from there. If you are worried about ovarian cancer, please make an appointment with your GP to discuss your concerns.