February is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. Did you know that ovarian cancer remains the deadliest cancer for women? Sadly, this is a fact that hasn’t changed in over 30 years. Every day in Australia, four women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer and three will die from the disease.
In this month’s blog, we take a closer look at the disease and highlight the signs, symptoms and risk factors to be aware of.
What is Ovarian Cancer?
Ovarian cancer is the growth of abnormal cells in one or both ovaries.
The ovaries are an important part of the female reproductive system. As well as producing the hormones that trigger menstruation, they are responsible for releasing at least one egg each month for possible fertilisation.
Ovarian cancer is most common in women who have experienced menopause and usually occurs in those over the age of 50. It can, however, affect women of any age.
If left untreated, ovarian cancer can metastasize and spread to other parts of the body.
There are three types of ovarian cancer:
1. Epithelial Ovarian Cancer– the most common type, accounting for over 80% of all ovarian cancers. This type affects the surface layers of the ovary.
2. Germ Cell Ovarian Cancer– originates in the cells that make the eggs. This type of cancer accounts for ~4% of all cases and generally affects women under the age of 30.
3. Sex Cord Stromal Cancer– develops in the cells that produce the female hormones of oestrogen and progesterone and accounts for only ~1.4% of cases of ovarian cancer.
While the exact cause of ovarian cancer is unknown, there are a number of risk factors that increase your risk of developing the disease.
- A family history of ovarian, breast or bowel cancer.
- Being aged over 50.
- Having endometriosis.
- Using hormone replacement therapy.
- Previously having had breast or bowel cancer.
- Smoking or obesity.
- Never having children or having children later in life (after the age of 35).
- Early onset of periods before the age of 12 and late menopause.
- Having genetic mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes.
- Being of Jewish Ashkenazi descent. These people have a higher incidence of BRCA mutations than the general population.
There are a number of ways to potentially reduce your risk of developing ovarian cancer, including:
- Having children.
- Using the combined oral contraceptive pill for several years.
- Surgical removal of the ovaries, uterus or fallopian tubes.
- Having your fallopian tubes tied (tubal litigation).
- Achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight.
- Getting regular exercise of at least 30 to 60 minute or more of moderate intensity physical activity most days of the week.
- Eating a balanced and nutritious diet.
- Avoiding alcohol or limiting your alcohol intake if you do drink.
- Quitting smoking.
What are the symptoms?
The early symptoms of ovarian cancer can be difficult to recognise and are often the same as the symptoms of other conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
Unfortunately, there is also no early detection test available for ovarian cancer. Regular cervical screenings and pap smears DO NOT check for ovarian cancer.
Common symptoms that may indicate ovarian cancer, however, include:
- A swollen, bloated abdomen and pressure, discomfort or pain in the abdomen.
- Heartburn, nausea and bloating.
- Changes in toilet habits. For example, constipation, diarrhoea, frequent urination due to pressure and increased flatulence.
- Tiredness and loss of appetite.
- Unexplained weight loss or weight gain.
- Changes in menstrual pattern or post-menopausal bleeding.
- Pain during sex.
If you are showing any signs or symptoms outlined above and they are prolonged, persistent or out of the ordinary, please book an appointment with your GP. It does not necessarily mean you have ovarian cancer but it does indicate that something needs checking.
Where can I find out more information?
For more information on this topic, visit:
- Australian Government Cancer Australia – https://ovarian-cancer.canceraustralia.gov.au/
- Cancer Council Australia – https://www.cancer.org.au/about-cancer/types-of-cancer/ovarian-cancer.html
- Cancer Council WA – https://www.cancerwa.asn.au/resources/specific-cancers/gynaecological-cancers/ovarian-cancer/
- Health Direct – https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/ovarian-cancer
- Healthy WA – https://healthywa.wa.gov.au/Articles/N_R/Ovarian-cancer
- Ovarian Cancer Australia – https://ovariancancer.net.au/