Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month aims to alert more women to the dangers of one of the UK’s biggest killers
This month is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, representing a chance to raise awareness of this awful killer and to highlight the inequalities that thousands of women with ovarian cancer face in receiving the best care regardless of age, location or ethnicity.
Ovarian cancer is the biggest gynaecological killer of women in the UK – and the survival rates here are among the worst in Europe. It’s the fourth most common form of cancer death in women, after breast, lung and bowel cancer. Yet, the average GP will see only one case of ovarian cancer every five years.
More than 7,000 cases of ovarian cancer are diagnosed each year (that’s about 140 women each week) and the disease claims 4,000 deaths annually. Worrying statistics which should focus all our minds as we approach Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month in March. During the month fund-raising initiatives across the UK will link with a big publicity push to help fight the disease and to make more women aware of the dangers.
WHAT IS OVARIAN CANCER?
The ovaries are two small glands that form part of the female reproductive system, which is also made up of the vagina, cervix, uterus (womb) and Fallopian tubes. Ovaries have two main functions:
Produce, store, and release eggs for reproduction and produce the female sex hormones oestrogen and progesterone
Ovarian cancer occurs when there are abnormal cells in the ovary which multiply, creating a tumour. Tumours will either be benign or malignant. Benign tumours are non-cancerous and do not usually spread to other parts of the body. They may require some treatment but are rarely life threatening. If the tumour is malignant it is cancerous and when left untreated may spread to other parts of the body. Treatment will depend on the type, stage and grade of ovarian cancer diagnosed.
Three-quarters of women are diagnosed once the cancer has already spread, making treatment more difficult. The current five-year survival rate for ovarian cancer is 46 per cent. If diagnosed at the earliest stage, up to 90 per cent of women would survive five years or more. This is why awareness is so important, to drive forward improvements in diagnosis, treatment and survival.
The two most important aspects affecting a woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer during her lifetime are age and family history. The risk of ovarian cancer increases with age, and particularly after the menopause.
Most cases of ovarian cancer are ‘sporadic’ or one-offs. This means that close female relatives of someone with ovarian cancer do not necessarily face an increased risk of developing the disease themselves. However, in around one in every 10 cases, a family link can be identified.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Symptoms are frequent (they usually happen more than 12 times a month) and persistent.
The four main symptoms are – persistent pelvic or abdominal pain; increased abdominal size/persistent bloating (not bloating that comes and goes); difficulty eating/feeling full more quickly; needing to wee more urgently or more frequently.
These can also be symptoms of other, less serious, conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, ovarian cysts and polycystic ovary syndrome so if you’re experiencing them it doesn’t necessarily mean you have ovarian cancer.
Other symptoms can include unexpected weight loss, change in bowel habits and extreme fatigue.
If you regularly experience any of these symptoms, and that’s not normal for you it is important that you see your GP. If you are 50 or over and have symptoms that are new for you which are similar to those of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), your GP should offer you tests to check for ovarian cancer. It is worth noting that unlike cervical, bowel and breast cancers, there is still no reliable, effective screening method for ovarian cancer.