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What Are The Signs Of Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in women globally. In the UK there are approximately 8,000 new cases of ovarian cancer diagnosed each year. Although it is important not to presume each and every unusual symptom we experience as a life-threatening illness, it is beneficial to be aware of symptoms that could be an indication of something serious.

 

March marks ovarian cancer awareness month and with it the opportunity to raise awareness around the symptoms. Ovarian cancer is hard to detect in its early stages due to its vague symptoms. Women may experience persistent stomach pain, bloating and constipation and while ovarian cancer tends to occur in post-menopausal women, anyone can be at risk.

 

Here Anthony Davies, consultant gynaecologist at London Bridge Hospital and Chiswick Medical Centre, part of HCA Healthcare UK, shares his expert knowledge on ovarian cancer; the signs and symptoms.

What is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer is a disease that can disrupt the normal function of your ovaries. Your ovaries are part of your reproductive system. This system is located entirely in your pelvis and consists of your vagina, cervix, uterus (womb), endometrium (lining of the womb), fallopian tubes and ovaries.

 

You have two ovaries, one on each side of your body. They have two main functions. Firstly, they produce and store eggs for reproduction. Secondly, they produce the female sex hormones. These hormones helped develop your vagina, womb, fallopian tubes, breasts and body shape during puberty. They also regulate a woman’s menstrual cycle.

 

Ovarian cancer occurs when abnormal cells within the ovary start to multiply,creating a tumor. Non-cancerous tumors, otherwise known as benign tumors, don’t usually spread to other parts of the body. They may need treatment if complications occur as a result, however, they’re rarely life threatening.

 

Malignant ovarian tumors, however, are cancerous. It’s important to catch cancers early because they can grow enough to engulf most of the ovary and can spread to other parts of the body too. Ovarian cancer is unfortunately difficult to diagnose and often spreads before a person is aware that they have it.

Ovarian Cancer Risk Factors

The exact cause of ovarian cancer is unknown, but the following factors can increase your risk.

 

  1. Having a family history of ovarian or breast cancer
  2. Having the genetic mutations associated with ovarian cancer- BRCA1 and BRCA2
  3. Obesity
  4. Fertility drugs
  5. No history of pregnancy
  6. 50 years +
  7. Menopausal or post-menopausal

Ovarian Cancer Symptoms

If you experience one or more of these symptoms, and you’ve never experienced them persistently before, it’s advisable to visit your GP.

 

  • Abdominal Bloating Bloating from time to time is common for many people, however, it is important to seek medical advice if you have been feeling constantly bloated for most days over the past 2-3 weeks. As well as feeling bloated, you might also suffer with a noticeably bloated stomach. Often people who suffer with these symptoms simultaneously experience discomfort, or pain in the abdominal and pelvic area. As previously mentioned, the problem with this is that these are also the main symptoms of other, more common conditions, such as IBS. For this reason, it is important to make sure you are also checking for other, perhaps less obvious symptoms of ovarian cancer.
  • Loss of appetite This symptom is linked to the abdominal bloating but nonetheless should be taken seriously. A loss of appetite could be independent of bloating and feeling full or could be as a result of these symptoms. If you have noticed a change in your appetite or ability to eat as much as usual, then it is important to see your doctor.
  • Frequent need to urinate Another main symptom of ovarian cancer is the need to urinate more frequently than usual. This may be as a result of the tumour pressing on the bladder which causes the bladder to become squashed and thus, less able to retain fluid. Additionally, the bladder could become squashed as a result of fluid or water retention which occurs with bloating.
  • Changes in bowel habits Changes in bowel habits, especially if combined with other symptoms, could indicate that you might have ovarian cancer. Changes could range from having more frequent bowel movements to suffering with constipation.
  • Persistent Indigestion or Nausea If you have experienced continuous nausea or indigestion for over a week or two, then it would be worth seeking advice from your GP. This is particularly important if you have additionally been experiencing bloating, abdominal pain and a loss of appetite as it is a sign of ovarian cancer.
  • Pain during sex If you are feeling pain during sex on more than one occasion, this could be a warning sign that you have ovarian cancer. It is important that you don’t simply blame the menopause with pain experienced during sex. This is because as mentioned, women who have been through the menopause are at a higher risk of suffering from ovarian cancer.
  • Tiredness and fatigue We all have days that we feel tired, but if it’s persistent or unusual for you, then you should visit your GP. Fatigue is a common symptom of all cancers, so if you experience this alongside other symptoms mentioned, it could indicate that you have ovarian cancer.
  • Unintentional weight loss Unintentional weight loss can be a warning sign for various illnesses, including many cancers. It is normal for your body weight to fluctuate, but any unintentional loss of more than 5% of your weight over 6-12 months could be a sign that something might be wrong. If you have weight loss alongside tiredness, loss of appetite, a change in toilet habits, or an increase in general ill health, then you should pay particular attention.

How can you find out if you have ovarian cancer?

If you do experience one or more of the symptoms outlined above, make sure to visit your GP.

 

Your GP will initially ask about your general health, gently feel your abdominal area and ask about family history. In addition to this, your GP might decide to carry out an internal examination and take a blood test.

 

 

The blood tests are for a substance called CA125. CA125 is produced by some ovarian cancer cells. A high level of CA125 in your blood could indicate a presence of ovarian cancer, however, it can also be a sign of less serious conditions such as endometriosis, fibroids or pregnancy.

 

If there is a high level of CA125 present in your blood, then you will likely be sent for an ultrasound scan. This can be done using two methods; the first being abdominal whereby the ultrasound device is moved over your stomach, and the second being transvaginal. A transvaginal ultrasound is carried out internally to create a clearer image of the ovaries.

 

 

If any abnormalities are found, you will then be referred to a specialist who might carry out various tests including a biopsy, CT scan, MRI scan or laparoscopy.

 

Anthony Davies is based at London Bridge Hospital and Chiswick Medical Centre, part of HCA Healthcare UK For appointments and more information see 020 3553 9450

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