Ovarian Cancer: The Facts
Around 7,500 women in the UK are diagnosed with ovarian cancer every year.
For anyone born as a woman who has not undergone ovarian surgery, ovarian cancer is the most common cancer for those over the age of 50. This makes it essential that anyone who has ovaries, fallopian tubes and a uterus know the symptoms, causes and possible treatments.
What is ovarian cancer?
Ovarian cancer is the multiplication of abnormal cells in the ovary. These cells divide and multiply, forming masses of abnormal cells known as tumours. There are two different types of tumours – benign and cancerous (malignant). Benign tumours do not spread, whereas malignant tumours can spread to other parts of the body if left untreated.
There are three different types of ovarian cancer, including:
- Epithelial Ovarian Cancer - This affects the surface of the ovary and is the most common type of ovarian cancer - accounting for 90% of cases.
- Germ Cell Tumours - These are tumours which form in the ovarian cells that make eggs.
- Stromal Tumours - These develop within the connective tissue cells that hold the ovaries together.
What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?
There are several early warning symptoms, however, these can easily be dismissed or misdiagnosed, as they are also symptoms of less serious illnesses. It is therefore vitally important that anyone suffering the following symptoms gets them checked by their GP.
- Stomach pain.
- Difficulty in eating (feeling full quickly).
- Needing to pass water frequently.
- Diarrhoea or constipation.
- Back pain.
Benenden Health members can access the 24/7 GP advice line, to discuss any symptoms that are concerning them.
What causes ovarian cancer?
There are some factors that have been identified as giving an increased risk, including:
Those with two or more close relatives who have developed either ovarian or breast cancer may be at a higher risk of also developing the condition. If those close relatives developed ovarian cancer before the age of 50, this may be a marker of a faulty inherited gene. You can be tested for this gene, if eligible.
As most cases of ovarian cancer occur after the menopause, the risk increases with age. Eight out of ten who develop the condition will do so over the age of 50.
Some studies have shown a link between egg release and ovarian cancer. This is thought to be because every time an egg is released from the ovary the surface is damaged and needs to be repaired. It is during this repair process that abnormal cells can grow.
Anything that stops the process of ovulation can help minimise your chances of developing ovarian cancer. For example taking the contraceptive pill, having multiple pregnancies or breastfeeding.
Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT)
Taking hormone replacement therapy has been found to increase the risk of developing ovarian cancer slightly. Talk to your GP about the risks and benefits of taking HRT.
Endometriosis sufferers may be at an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.
Smoking can increase the risk of certain types of ovarian cancer, the longer you have smoked the greater the risk.
How is ovarian cancer diagnosed?
There are several steps to diagnosing ovarian cancer. These include:
Your GP will check your symptoms and also discuss any family history with you.
Your GP may wish to carry out an internal examination.
You may be referred for the CA125 blood test, amongst other more routine blood tests, which identifies a chemical in the blood that can be a marker of ovarian cancer.
An ultrasound scan will allow a clinician to assess the size and texture of your ovaries.. They will usually be able to see any cysts or tumours in or on the ovary.
If you are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, then other tests may be required to give a clearer picture. These may include a chest X-ray, a CT or MRI scan, abdominal fluid aspiration (extracting a small amount of fluid from the abdomen to check for cancer cells) and a laparoscopy (a camera inserted into the abdomen to take a better look at the ovaries). All of the above tests will help to identify the stage and grading of the ovarian cancer.
Treatment for ovarian cancer
Treatment will depend on the severity and grading of the ovarian cancer. The two main treatments are surgery and chemotherapy. Other treatments include targeted therapies and hormonal treatment.
The aim of chemotherapy is to shrink the tumours. This may also be used in cases of incurable ovarian cancer to improve the quality of life for the patient, this is referred to as palliative treatment.
Depending on the severity of the cancer, surgical options include removing the ovaries and fallopian tubes, removing the uterus (hysterectomy) or removing a layer of tissue within the abdomen.
Different types of surgery will have varying recovery times. The consultant will be able to advise on each case individually.
Living with ovarian cancer
An ovarian cancer diagnosis and the treatment that follows will affect the day-to-day life of the patient. How much it is affected will depend on the severity of the condition, the required treatments and other factors, including the patient’s general health and support network.
Everyone is different, but the following can help to deal with a difficult time:
Emotional support is likely to be invaluable, so don’t be afraid to lean on friends and family. Talking to others in a similar situation can also be reassuring – there are specific cancer forums on the Macmillan website.
If you feel that it would help you to have professional counselling, speak to your GP about a possible referral. Benenden Health members can access the 24/7 Mental Health Helpline to talk through worries and concerns and our Cancer Support Service.
Getting the practical support that you need is also vital. You may need to take time off work, lessen your workload around the home or have someone take you to appointments. You’ll also need to be well looked after following any surgical procedures, so make sure that those around you know what they can offer in terms of helping with the practicalities.
Learning about the condition
Knowing all the facts about ovarian cancer, and how they relate to your specific case can help you to feel more in control of the situation.
Rest and relaxation
It’s important to look after yourself during this difficult and draining time. Try to maintain a healthy balanced diet and gentle exercise, and get as much rest as possible. Be kind to yourself and your body.
About our healthcare
Benenden Health provides affordable private healthcare for everyone, giving you access to services such as our 24/7 GP Helpline and Mental Health Helpline straight away. Once you’ve been a member for six months you can request access to diagnostic consultations and tests, and if needed, treatment and surgery. You'll also have access to a wealth of health and wellbeing articles, videos and advice on a range of health issues.
Medically reviewed by Llinos Connolly in December 2022. Next review date: December 2023.