Home News & Events News BLOG: Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month

March is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month when people across the globe are encouraged to acknowledge ovarian cancer symptoms and get a diagnosis before it’s too late. The ovaries are two small, oval-shaped organs in the female pelvis, and ovarian cancer refers to cancer affecting these. 

If you’re wondering, “how common is ovarian cancer?” you might be surprised to learn that around 20 people are diagnosed every day in the UK, equating to roughly 7,000 people per year. Ovarian cancer can affect anyone born a female, and anyone with symptoms should promptly contact their GP. At Rutherford Cancer Centres, we want to take this Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month as an opportunity to educate people on the signs of ovarian cancer.

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What is Ovarian Cancer?

The most common cancer to start in the ovary is epithelial cancer, which comes in many forms. These types are clear cell, endometroid, mucinous, and serous; however, high-grade serous cancer is the most common type. Ovarian cancer begins to form when abnormal cells in the ovaries grow and divide uncontrollably. Eventually, this leads to tumour growth, tumours are typically split into two categories: germ cell ovarian and borderline tumours.

Germ cell ovarian tumours are rare and start to form in the cells that produce eggs. This typically affects younger people and will likely require a different course of treatment for epithelial cancer. Borderline tumours comprise abnormal epithelial cells; however, they’re not deemed true cancers. Typically, these grow slowly and are not likely to spread, yet they can behave like low-grade cancer on rare occasions.


Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer

Since the signs of ovarian cancer are often linked to common and less severe conditions, it isn’t usually diagnosed in the early stages. If you regularly get the following symptoms without an explained cause, make an appointment with your GP:

  • An urgent need to urinate
  • Passing urine more often than usual
  • Pain in the lower abdomen or back
  • Feeling full quickly when eating
  • A loss of appetite
  • A swollen or bloated tummy
  • Vaginal bleeding after menopause
  • Unexplained fatigue
  • Weight fluctuation
  • Changes in bowel habits

Of course, the above symptoms could be associated with something completely unrelated to cancer, meaning you shouldn’t worry straight away. The best thing you can do is consult your GP to carry out tests and put your mind at ease.


Causes of Ovarian Cancer

Although there are no confirmed ovarian cancer causes, a handful of risk factors increase the chances of developing the illness. These include age, hormonal factors, medical conditions, lifestyle factors, family history of cancer, and inherited genetic conditions.

Ovarian cancer will rarely develop in people under the age of 30, and the risk is heightened by age. In fact, over 50% of ovarian cancers occur in individuals older than 65. This also contributes to the hormonal factors that are believed to be linked to ovarian cancer. For example, it’s thought that ovarian cancers are more common in people who have ovulated more times.

As a result, those who have later menopause, start their periods young, give birth for the first time after 35, and have never given birth are also more at risk. In some instances, hormone replacement therapy may also contribute to a person’s likelihood of developing ovarian cancer, but this has only been linked to around 1% of cases. On the contrary, reducing ovulation may lower the risk of ovarian cancer, such as the contraceptive pill, breastfeeding, and pregnancy.

Additionally, diabetes, endometriosis, and breast cancer are all conditions that may heighten your chances of developing ovarian cancer. On top of this, lifestyle factors such as smoking and obesity may increase your risk.

For those with a close relative with ovarian cancer, your risk of developing the disease can be about three times higher. If you have more than one relative with the illness, your risk could be greater. Similarly, those with genetic conditions may be more susceptible to developing cancers due to how their mutated genes affect their body.


Diagnosis of Ovarian Cancer

Usually, your diagnosis journey will begin with a visit to the GP, where you’ll be asked about your symptoms and undergo a vaginal examination. You may also be required to have a blood test and ultrasound scan; if these measures cause concern, your GP will refer you to a specialist within a fortnight. Despite this, you may be directly admitted to hospital in instances when your symptoms are making you particularly unwell.

Once you’ve been referred to the hospital, a specialist doctor will assess your health and your family’s cancer history. They will then perform a further vaginal examination, blood tests and ultrasounds if you haven’t already had them. These tests may be used to assess your Risk of Malignancy Index, which determines the likelihood that your symptoms are caused by cancer. This will consider your ultrasound results, the CA125 levels in your blood, and whether you’ve gone through menopause.

Following this, you may require further tests such as CT scans, fluid taken from the abdomen, biopsies, and genetic testing.


Staging of Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer stages are split into four subcategories, with stage 1 being the earliest. During stage 1a, the cancer is only in one ovary or fallopian tube, whereas 1b describes when the cancer is in both ovaries or fallopian tubes. The final subdivision of the first stage refers to when the cancer is in one or both ovaries or fallopian tubes, whilst the tissue surrounding the ovary or fallopian tube has broken, there are cancer cells on the surface, or there are cancer cells in the fluid in the pelvis or abdomen.

After stage 1c comes stage 2a, which describes cancer in the ovaries, fallopian tubes, or womb, next, stage 2b refers to cancer on the other structures in the pelvis, including the bowel or bladder.

Following this, stage 3a1 is when the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes in the pelvis/abdomen, whilst stage 3a2 refers to when small amounts of cancer have spread to the peritoneum. Then, stage 3b describes areas of cancer on the peritoneum that are less than 2 cm. The final subdivision of the third stage is when the tumour on the peritoneum is larger than 2cm, and cancer cells may also have made their way to the surface of the liver and spleen.

Finally, stage 4a refers to a build-up of fluid within the lining of the lungs. Stage 4b is when the cancer has reached the inside of the spleen or liver and organs and lymph nodes outside the abdomen.


Treatment for Ovarian Cancer

Once diagnosed, you’ll meet with a consultant to determine your best course of treatment. These treatments include surgery and chemotherapy, and in instances where cancer has come back, palliative radiotherapy may be used. A treatment pathway will be advised based on your individual circumstances, and you will be fully equipped with all the information you need to make the right treatment decision for you.


Life After Ovarian Cancer Treatment

Upon completing your treatment, you’ll attend regular check-ups, which may include further blood tests. After this, if you find that you have developed any new symptoms, don’t hesitate to contact your specialist team. It doesn’t always mean that cancer has returned, but you can typically undergo further surgery, targeted therapies, and chemotherapy if this is the case.

You might decide to make positive lifestyle changes after treatment to feel as healthy as possible. We understand how emotionally and physically taxing the entire process can be and will be with you every step of the way.


Ovarian Cancer Myths

There are various myths surrounding ovarian cancer; however, these myths are untrue, and this Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, we aim to discredit them.

  • “There are no risk factors for ovarian cancer.” – Although family history is a significant risk factor for ovarian cancer, this only accounts for 10-15% of cases. It’s vital that you maintain a healthy lifestyle to reduce the risk factors.
  • “A cyst on the ovary is always cause for concern.” – This isn’t strictly the case, and most ovarian cysts aren’t cancerous.
  • “Ovarian cancer has specific symptoms.” – Although there are a handful of general symptoms, there is no single sign of early-stage ovarian cancer.
  • “Smear tests check for ovarian cancer” – If you’ve ever wondered “, can a smear test detect ovarian cancer?” the answer is no. Smear tests only detect cervical cancer.
  • “Advanced ovarian cancer isn’t treatable.” – Although all cancers are much harder to treat in the later stages, this doesn’t mean it’s impossible. An advanced cancer diagnosis doesn’t necessarily mean the worst.


Ovarian Cancer Support

Receiving a cancer diagnosis can take a toll on your emotional, mental, and physical well-being. At Rutherford Cancer Centres, we’re here to support those who have received a cancer diagnosis and need direction for consultations and treatment options. Please get in touch for further guidance about ovarian cancer diagnoses, support, or GP referral discussions.

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