The biggest issue with ovarian cancer is that in 85% per cent of cases, the disease has spread to other parts of the body before you notice you have any symptoms. In fact you may confuse it with weight gain, indigestion or even menopuase as symptoms can include persistent bloating and continual abdominal pains.
Why this is a high risk disease
If the disease is caught early, then the prognosis is excellent as more than nine out of ten women have a survival rate of at least five years. However, if undetected and left untreated as it starts to spread then survival rate drops to less than one in ten. Even more worrying is that the overall survival rates are low when compared with breast cancer. Ovarian cancer sees only 36% of women alive after five years whereas with breast cancer it is 81%.
In a major report on women’s health issues Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer, highlighted this, saying that deaths from ovarian cancer were still ‘stubbornly high’ and a national audit to improve outcomes for patients was ‘long overdue’.
‘We have seen such audits improve outcomes for lung, bowel, head and neck cancers, and I want to see the same happen for ovarian cancer,’ she said. She also pointed to the need for improved surgery for ovarian cancer.
Are you at risk?
The average risk of developing ovarian cancer is one in 50, but certain factors increase this risk, with the average age of diagnosis coming at 63. Watch out for these ovarian cancer symptoms:
* Persistent stomach pain
* Persistent bloating
* Finding it difficult to eat or feeling full quickly
* Needing to urinate more often
Other symptoms you may notice include:
* Back pain
* Changes in your bowel habits (diarrhoea or constipation)
* Feeling tired all the time
If you’re regularly experiencing these symptoms on most days it’s important to talk to your GP as soon as possible.
Risk factor 1 Being overweight and not exercising is a concern as there’s a 6% increased risk of ovarian cancer for every five extra BMI points you are above the healthy range and that is 18 to 25 according to the World Health Organisation. Extra fat in the body is linked to cancer as it leads to the production of hormones and growth factors that affect the way cells work.
Being sedentary and taking little exercise is linked to increased risk of ovarian cancer and other diseases and is an essential part of a healthy weight loss plan.
Risk factor 2 Age is also a factor as the risk of ovarian cancer increases because the older we get, the more likely it is that genetic mutations occur in cells, and the body is also less good at repairing them.
Risk factor 3 A late menopause, and not having children these are both risk factors and the reason is that such women will have ovulated more often as they have had a much longer menstrual cycle than the average. The risk relates to the fact that each time an egg is released every month, there is a possibility that this can cause ulceration to the ovary. Recurrent ulceration can, in some cases, lead to ovarian cancer.
Women who do have children were found by An Oxford University study to reduce their risk of ovarian cancer by up to 40%.
Risk factor 4 Synthetic hormones in the coil and HRT are associated with an increased risk of ovarian cancer. According to Cancer Research UK, if women over 50 start taking HRT for five years, one in 1,000 will develop ovarian cancer. A recent study showed using a coil for a short time lowered the risk of ovarian cancer, but it went up with longer use.
Risk factor 5 relates to your family history. If there is history of hormone related cancers such as breast or ovarian in your family then you can have a test to see if you are a carrier, and it can also come through the male as well as female side. With the faulty BRCA1 gene, the risk of ovarian cancer starts to pick up in the mid to late 30s and the risk for breast cancer rises from the late 20s.
The conventional option is to have your family early and then consider surgery. However, before a hysterectomy you could also start ensuring you have good hormone balance as the main risk relates to excess oestrogen not balanced by progesterone. Women with such a history could be proactive and ensure they have good progesterone levels and no oestrogen dominance.
Risk factor 6 is smoking and although the number of women doing so has declined it is still a risk, even if you are only an occasional smoker.
Risk factor 7 relates to IVF treatment as a study by University College London published in October 2015 found women who have IVF are a third more likely to develop ovarian cancer. This risk applies whatever age you are, but is highest in the first three years after treatment.
What can you do?
Hormone balance is key so get your levels in the right ratio. Oestrogen dominance, excess oestrogen, is linked to many forms of cancer so tackling that is a good first step.
The obvious lifestyle switches that will make a real difference to your overall health, and reduce your risk, include a healthy diet, being at your optimal weight, exercising regularly and giving up smoking if you do so.