Published: 18 March.
It’s one of the most common cancers – but can you name the signs? This Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, Dr Anushka Patchava explains what ovarian cancer is and how to spot its lesser-known symptoms.
Around one in 75 women get ovarian cancer. It’s the sixth most common cause of cancer deaths in women, and accounts for more deaths in the UK than all other gynaecological cancers put together, according to the cancer research charity, The Eve Appeal. But with the right knowledge, you can spot the signs and symptoms early, increasing your chances of successful treatment. Dr Anushka Patchava, Deputy Chief Medical Officer at Vitality and a qualified medical doctor, gives us the lowdown.
What is ovarian cancer?
Ovarian cancer is common, and, as you might imagine, affects the ovaries. It’s known as the ‘silent killer’ because many of the symptoms – such as bloating, feeling full when eating and needing to urinate more often – can be confused with other conditions. As such, ovarian cancer may be misdiagnosed, or the symptoms put down to other issues like IBS. That’s why it’s all the more important to get clued up on the signs and symptoms.
Who’s at risk?
Ovarian cancer is most common in women who have been through the menopause, but it can affect younger women too. It can be hereditary, and your risk is increased if your mother, sister or daughter has had it. Mutations in the BRCA genes – genes also associated with breast cancer – account for 90% of epithelial ovarian cancer, which is the most common type.
Can I reduce my risk?
To be clear, there is no way to prevent ovarian cancer. However, evidence has shown that the following measures <may> contribute to a reduced risk of ovarian cancer:
- Using contraceptive pills for five or more years
- Having both ovaries removed, a tubal ligation (where the fallopian tubes are blocked or cut) or a hysterectomy (where the womb is removed)
- Giving birth
- Breastfeeding for a year or more
If you’re worried, I’d suggest speaking to your doctor, as these measures are not recommended for everyone and each carries their own risks and benefits – nor do they guarantee that you will not get ovarian cancer.
The 5 signs and symptoms you shouldn’t ignore
You should always speak to your doctor if something doesn’t feel right – remember, it’s you who knows your body best. Some common signs of ovarian cancer that you mustn’t ignore are:
- Feeling constantly bloated
- Having a swollen tummy
- Experiencing discomfort in your tummy or pelvic area
- Feeling full quickly when eating or having trouble eating your usual amount
- Needing to urinate more often than normal or feeling like you always need to urinate
See your GP if you notice any of the above. Also bear in mind that back pain, pain during sex, fatigue, constipation, bleeding after menopause or changes to your menstrual cycle (whether that’s irregular bleeding or heavier bleeding than normal), and unexpected weight loss can also be symptoms. If you experience any of these, discuss them with your doctor.
How can I support a loved one through ovarian cancer?
It can be very difficult to know how to support a loved one through cancer. People can respond in a variety of ways that can be hard to anticipate. Just remember that you can reach out to others for help.
At Vitality, our Cancer Treatment Support Programme powered by OnkoHealth, offers our members holistic support and access to dedicated cancer professionals including nurse specialists, nutritionists and psychologists throughout their treatment journey.
There are also lots of charities, like Macmillan and Cancer Research UK, which offer support lines, forums and valuable advice for helping others through a diagnosis. If you feel you are struggling with supporting a partner, friend or family member with cancer, always remember that you can speak to your GP.
As a Vitality member, you could get partner benefits and rewards with a range of big brands. Available with qualifying health insurance, life insurance and investment plans. Log in to Member Zone for the details.