Ovarian cancer has been getting a lot more attention in recent years due to it affecting many women, of all ages. Big campaigns have boosted the attention and therefore the ability for researchers to unravel this disease.
Despite this increased attention, not everyone is across the causes, signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer. Since being aware is a vital part of cancer prevention and early detection, here is what you need to know about ovarian cancer.
First though, a little primer on ovaries. Ovaries are a pair of organs that sit in the pelvis and produce eggs as well as some sex hormones. They are right next to the fallopian tubes where a released egg will travel to the uterus. Ovarian cancer is a cancerous growth of the cells of the ovaries, or some of the related cells. There are three types of ovarian cancer, the most common one being epithelial type.
Ovarian cancer is the eighth most common form of cancer affecting women. In 2019, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, an estimated 1510 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which accounts for around 2.3% of all new cancer diagnoses in women. It’s predicted that 1019 Australian women will die of ovarian cancer in the same year.
One of the main reasons that ovarian cancer can seem so concerning is that the symptoms that women experience can be very vague and difficult to diagnose. Symptoms can include abdominal bloating, pain, feeling full after eating, pelvic or back pain, frequent or difficult urination, fatigue, indigestion, menstrual abnormalities or pain during intercourse. Your doctor may also detect a lump during a routine visit, such as during a pap smear where you may also have a pelvic exam.
Unlike some other cancers, we don’t know the exact causes of ovarian cancer. One of the main associations with ovarian cancer (in fact, virtually all cancers) is age with more commonly being diagnosed the older one gets. There are also some genetic factors such as mutations in the BRCA gene (which is also associated with breast cancer) and being of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, where BRCA mutations are common. There are also some associations with HRT, having had breast cancer, endometriosis, smoking and being overweight. There are just associations and unravelling the causes are a priority.
The other important priority is in screening. Screening examines healthy, asymptomatic people for diseases like cancer early on to enable more effective treatment. Since ovarian cancer is sometimes tricky to detect, a screening test would be ideal. There are some blood tests that may be associated with ovarian cancer and having an ultrasound scan of the pelvis may be used. For anyone who is at risk, these tests may be performed by your doctor but as of yet, we need a test for the entire female population.
If diagnosed, treatment may involve a combination of surgery and chemotherapy. Radiotherapy may be used and newer drugs, called biological agents where medicines that work similarly to our immune systems, can be used. Clinical trials are ongoing in this area.
The take home message for women is to be aware. You know your body well and if something doesn’t seem right, see your GP and discuss it. For more information, see your doctor or visit Ovarian Cancer Australia.