Know the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer

One woman dies every eight hours of ovarian cancer in Australia, meaning ovarian cancer is the most lethal gynaecological cancer in our country. Unfortunately, in most cases where a diagnosis of ovarian cancer is made, the cancer is at an advanced stage where treatment is difficult. Early detection is vital in saving lives, so it’s important to know the signs and symptoms for yourself and raise any concerns with your GP.

This article coincides with Teal Ribbon Day, which is run by Ovarian Cancer Australia on the last Wednesday of February each year. We are proud to raise awareness about the need for early detection of ovarian cancer. The day also supports those Australians affected, honouring those we have lost and raising vital research funds. You too, can take part in raising awareness or funds for Ovarian Cancer Australia by visiting their website here. Teal ribbons can be purchased for $3 each through Ovarian Cancer Australia  (OCA) or through participating partners.  

Knowing ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer happens when some of the cells in one or both of a woman’s ovaries start to grow abnormally and develop into cancer.  The growth can continue to spread through the body if not treated.

There are three types of ovarian cancers:

  • Epithelial tumours. These are the most common type accounting for 90% of ovarian cancers. The cancer starts in the cells lining in the surface layer (epithelial) of the ovary. 
  • Germ cell tumours. These are growths that form in the egg cells of the ovary. This type of cancer is rare and accounts for about 5% of ovarian cancers.
  • Stromal cell and other rare types, which include sex-cord stromal cell ovarian cancer, stromal tumours, and sarcomas.

It is also possible to have borderline epithelial tumours which are sometimes called “low malignant potential” tumours.

Ovarian cancers behave differently and therefore are treated differently. It you have been diagnosed with a rare type of ovarian cancer it can be difficult to find specific information and this can be upsetting. You may find it helpful to visit the Rare Cancers Australia website and see their Knowledgebase section. It features an online collection of resources and contacts for rare cancers.

Age of diagnosis

About 1800 women are diagnosed each year in Australia, according to the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation. Around the world, that number reaches nearly a quarter of a million people.

Your chances of developing ovarian cancer increases as you get older. Age 64 is the average age a woman is diagnosed, and though it mainly affects those aged 50 or more (menopausal age), there are still younger cases. 

Survival rates

Ovarian cancer remains the deadliest women’s cancer in Australia and is the eighth most-commonly diagnosed cancer in females. Unfortunately, only 29% of women diagnosed at a late stage will survive for more than five years. If a woman is diagnosed at Stage 1 (while the cancer is localised) her survival rates are more than 90%.

Signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer

Symptoms and signs of ovarian cancer can be similar to other conditions which makes them difficult to recognise and can delay women and their doctor from taking further steps. You know your own body better than anyone else however, so trust your instincts. If you need a second opinion, get one.  Tell your GP you are concerned about the possibility of it being ovarian cancer so they can consider doing appropriate investigations. Often, low risk investigations like an ultrasound and some blood tests can provide very useful information about your risk of having ovarian cancer. See more about diagnosis below.

The most commonly-reported symptoms may include:

  • Abdominal or pelvic pain, pressure or discomfort
  • Increased abdominal size
  • A need to urinate often or urgently
  • Feeling full after only eating a small amount / appetite loss
  • Persistent abdominal bloating.

Additional symptoms:

  • Changed bowel habits
  • Unexplained weight loss or gain
  • Excessive fatigue or lethargy
  • Lower back pain
  • Indigestion or nausea
  • Irregular periods
  • Bleeding in-between periods
  • Post-menopausal bleeding.

The causes of ovarian cancer are unknown. Risk factors though include age, hereditary factors, having endometriosis, lifestyle and hormonal factors, being overweight, smoking, the use of hormone replacement therapy, and not having had children. According to the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation, recent research suggests many ovarian cancers start in the fallopian tubes. This should not be confused with cervical cancer though, which originates from the cervix. About 15-20% of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer have been found to have one of the breast cancer associated BRCA gene mutations or other similar genes mutations.

Diagnosis

There are no standard screening tests for ovarian cancer, so it’s best to see your doctor if you’re experiencing anything new or abnormal. A doctor will investigate if your symptoms are due to cancer or other possible reasons.  Tests could include a blood test, an ultrasound, and an internal vaginal examination.  If any tests indicate cancer, the GP may refer you to a specialist – a gynaecological oncologist – to be seen within two weeks. Other tests may include:

  • A computerised tomography (CT) scan (a three-dimensional scan of organs)
  • Removal of fluid from your abdomen if it has built up
  • Tissue sample (biopsy)
  • Laparoscopy to enable tissue samples to be taken for testing in the laboratory, or a laparotomy 
  • Chest x-ray to check if a cancer has spread.

It can be anxious waiting for test results so please speak to your GP if you would like to know about supportive resources. An ovarian cancer nurse is also available to speak to via The Ovarian Cancer Australia Helpline during business hours on 1300 660 334. 

Treatment

While there have been developments in ovarian cancer research, some of the ovarian cancer drugs have been used since 1992. Treatment for ovarian cancer usually involves surgery and chemotherapy or sometimes a combination of both. Radiotherapy is another treatment. Usually, a person’s treatment depends on the stage and grade of the cancer, and the person’s health at the time.

Fortunately, Ovarian cancer is relatively uncommon.  It is important to keep it in mind, but not to be fearful. Paying attention to your health, having a good relationship with your GP, sharing your symptoms and concerns and, if necessary, performing investigations will increase the chance of early identification and with it improve survival rates.

As a small gesture, Fiveways Surgery will be donating $500 to Ovarian Cancer Australia. We hope you can find a way to support Ovarian Cancer research and support nurses too. Click here to find a way to support Ovarian Cancer Australia.

Sources:

Further resources:

Menu