The ovaries are part of the female reproductive system. These are two glands which are oval or almond-shaped. They sit inside the pelvis and release an egg (ovum) every month. Additionally, they also produce female sex hormones. However, cancer can develop in one or both ovaries known as ovarian cancer.
What is Ovarian Cancer?
Ovarian cancer is when cells inside, near or on the outer layer of the ovaries begin to grow uncontrollably. Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths. An estimated one woman in 75 will develop ovarian cancer during her lifetime. However, like all cancers, ovarian cancer can be difficult to diagnose at an early stage. This is because symptoms can be vague and similar to those of other common illnesses.
Causes of ovarian cancer
The exact causes of ovarian cancer are unknown, but some of the risk factors include:
- an increase in age usually above 60
- inheriting a faulty gene; a gene mutation
- being Caucasian
- having few or no full-term pregnancies
- being overweight or obese
- starting your menstrual cycle early usually before the age of 12
- beginning menopause after the age of 50
- if you have a history of it in your family, particularly if a close relative (sister or mother)
Warning signs of ovarian cancer
Ovarian cancer is difficult to detect, especially in the early stages. This is partly due to the fact that the ovaries are deep within the abdominal cavity. Also, it can be confused with symptoms of other, less serious, conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome. Besides, women are more likely to have symptoms if the disease has spread. If they do, it includes;
- discomfort in the abdomen, such as bloating or a feeling of pressure
- vaginal bleeding that isn’t due to normal menstrual periods
- swollen abdomen as the cancer grows.
- persistent stomach pain
- difficulty eating/feeling full more quickly
- feeling the need to urinate urgently or often
Other symptoms of ovarian cancer can include:
- persistent indigestion or nausea
- pain during s3x
- a change in your bowel habits such as constipation
- back pain
- vaginal bleeding – particularly bleeding after the menopause
- feeling tired all the time
- unintentional weight loss
However, when the symptoms are persistent or do not resolve with normal interventions such as diet change, exercise, laxatives, rest it is important for you to to see your doctor. Persistence of symptoms is key. Because, signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer are vague or silent.
The treatment for ovarian cancer depends on how far it has spread, your general health and whether you’re still able to have children. Most people have a combination of surgery and chemotherapy.
The aim of treatment is to cure the cancer if possible. If the cancer is too advanced to be cured, treatment aims to relieve symptoms and control the cancer for as long as possible.
You’ll be cared for by a team of healthcare professionals who will come up with a treatment plan and support you throughout your treatment.
Surgery is the main treatment for ovarian cancer. The aim is to remove all of the cancer or as much of it as possible.
Surgery usually involves removing:
- both ovaries and the fallopian tubes
- the womb (a hysterectomy)
- a layer of fatty tissue in the tummy (the omentum)
If the cancer is just in one or both ovaries, you may only need to have the ovary or ovaries removed, leaving your womb intact. This means you may still be able to have children.
Chemotherapy is where medication is used to kill cancer cells. Most women with ovarian cancer have it in addition to surgery.
It may be used:
- after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells
- before surgery to shrink the cancer and make it easier to remove
- if ovarian cancer comes back after initial treatment.
Chemotherapy medicine is usually given as a drip into the vein, but is sometimes given as tablets. You’ll need to come into hospital to receive the treatment, but can normally go home the same day.
Treatment is in cycles, with a period of treatment then a period of rest to allow your body to recover. Most women have 6 cycles of chemotherapy, with each cycle lasting 3 weeks.
Radiotherapy uses carefully directed beams of radiation to kill cancer cells.
It’s not used very often but when:
- after surgery for early ovarian cancer, to kill any cancer cells left behind
- to shrink tumours and reduce symptoms if ovarian cancer has spread and curing is impossible