Written by Charlotte Haigh MacNeil
Meet our expert: Dr Sharon Tate is Head of Primary Care Development at the charity Target Ovarian Cancer.
Being aware of the symptoms of ovarian cancer is crucial for all women, but especially if you’re over 50. “The five-year ovarian cancer survival rate is just 43 per cent,” says Dr Sharon Tate of Target Ovarian Cancer.
“But that’s largely because the disease is often picked up in the later stages. Three quarters of women are diagnosed when the cancer has already spread, making it much harder to treat successfully.” Being able to spot the signs early could help you reduce your risk.
Who is at risk?
Age and family history are the main risk factors. “Most cases of ovarian cancer occur in women who are over the age of 50,” says Sharon. “And if there are two or more cases of breast cancer or ovarian cancer on either side of your family, you may be at slightly higher risk, so speak to your GP.”
Some women inherit gene mutations, such as the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which are linked to an increased risk of both breast and ovarian cancer. But only two out of every ten cases can be linked to genes.”
If you had children and breastfed them, your risk may be slightly lower, and having been on the Pill for ten years or more may also decrease your risk. Obese women have a slightly higher chance of developing ovarian cancer, so losing weight if you need to, staying fit and eating a balanced diet may help you stay healthy.
Spot the signs
It was once thought there were no clear signs in the early stages of ovarian cancer – but doctors now believe this isn’t the case.
Look out for increased abdominal size or persistent bloating (which doesn’t come and go), needing to wee more often, pelvic or abdominal pain, difficulty eating, or feeling full quickly. Unexpected weight loss, a change in bowel habits and extreme fatigue can be warning signs, too. If you experience any of these symptoms frequently (more than 12 times in a month), or you’re worried, you should always see your GP. It’s unlikely to be ovarian cancer – but it’s crucial to get it ruled out first.
It can be hard for GPs to spot the signs of ovarian cancer and it can take a while to get a diagnosis. If you’re concerned your doctor may be missing your symptoms, go back and explain why you’re concerned or discuss it with another GP at the practice.
Is screening available?
Many women wrongly believe that cervical screening tests (smear tests) can detect ovarian cancer. There currently isn’t a reliable method of screening for ovarian cancer in the UK, although scientists are continuing to trial various options. If you’re at a high risk of developing the disease because of a strong family history you may be entitled to specific tests, speak to your doctor about this.
What else can I do?
Check your risk of hereditary breast or ovarian cancer with Macmillan’s online assessment tool. The OPERA test (opera.macmillan.org.uk) asks simple but specific questions about your family history of these cancers and uses the answers to determine your risk of inheriting either of them.
It gives targeted advice on preventing cancer and lets you know if you should see your GP for tests. It won’t tell you if you have a risk of non-hereditary ovarian cancer though, which accounts for eight out of every ten cases.
The very best way to protect yourself is to be aware of the symptoms (outlined above) and report anything unusual to your GP.
What about HRT?
The latest research from Oxford University found that taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for five years from the age of 50 could cause one extra woman in every 1000 to get ovarian cancer. The study also found that taking HRT increases your personal risk of developing ovarian cancer by 40 per cent, although when you stop taking it your risk decreases again.
When it comes to deciding whether HRT is right for you it’s important that you and your GP look at your personal risk factors. If you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancers then your risk will be different to that of a woman without a genetic link. You need to weigh up the benefits against the possibility of future health problems.
Should I see my GP?
- Do you feel bloated all the time?
- Is your tummy larger even though you haven’t gained weight?
- Do you have pain in your pelvic area or tummy?
- Do you feel full quickly or have no appetite?
- Have you had sudden weight loss?
- Have you experienced a change in bowel habits?
- Do you feel unusually tired?
If you have several of these symptoms you should see your GP.