Not as rare as you think
Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cancer to affect women (behind breast, lung, bowel and uterine cancers) with 7,100 cases being diagnosed in the UK every year – that’s roughly 135 women each week. There’s a one in 50 chance of a woman developing the disease over her lifetime and the risk increases with age, with over eight out of ten cases occurring after the menopause.
A bigger threat than you imagine
Ovarian cancer kills around 4,300 women a year – that’s four times higher than cervical cancer. Cervical smears are estimated to save 4,500 lives a year. But nearly half of all women believe cervical cancer to be more of a threat than ovarian cancer, according to a recent survey by the charity Target Ovarian Cancer (targetovariancancer. org.uk). And almost half, 47%, mistakenly believe that cervical screening will detect ovarian cancer.
Know your symptoms
Only 3% of women are aware of signs of the disease, according to Target Ovarian Cancer. The four main symptoms are a persistent stomach pain, bloating, diffculty eating or feeling full quickly and needing to urinate more frequently. ‘Unlike IBS, ovarian cancer symptoms are frequent and persistent and don’t tend to come and go’, says Abi Begho, Healthcare Project Manager from Ovarian Cancer Action (ovarian.org.uk).
It’s not the silent killer
It was once thought that by the time symptoms appear, the cancer had already become advanced, but research now shows this isn’t the case. Women do get symptoms in the early stages of the disease, but a lack of awareness often leads to misdiagnosis: 30% are told they have IBS, 15% are diagnosed with ovarian cysts, and 13% with urinary infections. ‘If you have symptoms that don’t go away, occur most days, started within the last 12 months and are not normal for you, you should make an appointment with your GP urgently,’ advises Abi Begho.
Know your family history
Advances in genetic testing and knowledge now mean that women who have a family history of ovarian cancer can fnd out more about their own risk of developing the disease, says Abi Begho. ‘A family history of breast and/or ovarian cancer may indicate the presence of a BRCA mutation, which increases the risk to 35-60%. While a family history of ovarian, bowel, womb, stomach, pancreatic, biliary and bladder cancer may suggest the presence of Lynch syndrome increasing the risk to 10%. Currently, if there is a signifcant family history – on either your mother’s or your father’s side – you can be referred to a genetic clinic for advice regarding testing.
The Pill lowers your risk
If you’ve taken the contraceptive Pill for ten years, the risk of ovarian cancer is almost halved, according to a recent study published in the British Journal of Cancer. It’s thought that the disease is related to how many times you ovulate in your life and, because the Pill prevents ovulation, your risk is lowered. For exactly the same reasons, having a baby reduces the risk and the more children you have, the greater the protection.
Sexual activity is not the reason
Some women mistakenly believe that the number of sexual partners they have, or the age at which they became sexually active, has some bearing on their chances of developing ovarian cancer. Not true. The confusion arises from the spread of the HPV (human papilloma) virus, which is associated with sexual activity, but leads to cervical rather than ovarian cancer.
Screening still some way off
There is still no screening test reliable enough to check for ovarian cancer, but there is an ongoing clinical trial on 200,000 women, between the ages of 50 and 74. Researchers are looking into the potential benefts of a blood test (called CA125) to detect ‘tumour markers’, plus a transvaginal scan to look at the ovaries. Initial fndings are due in 2015. Women who may have an increased risk of ovarian cancer should speak to their GP about screening tests, says Abi Begho.
Size does matter
‘One thing we can now say with certainty is that being overweight or obese increases a woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer, just as it does with a number of other cancers, such as breast, bowel and womb cancer,’ says Dr Rachel Thompson, Head of Research Interpretation at the World Cancer Research Fund (WRCF). ‘This means that women can make lifestyle changes in order to reduce their chances of getting ovarian cancer.’
If diagnosed in the early stages, the good news is that more than 70% of women will survive this disease. But, as with many other types of cancer, the outcome depends on the stage of your cancer when it is diagnosed, says Cancer Research UK. Of all those with ovarian cancer, 73% will live for at least one year after they are diagnosed; 46% will live for at least 5 years and 36% will live for at least ten years.