No woman wants to be told they’re living with ovarian cancer, but 239,000 women worldwide will be diagnosed with the cancer by the end of the year.
In Australia specifically, four women are diagnosed and three lose their ovarian cancer battle each day. Annually, more than 1,600 Australian women are diagnosed and just 45 per cent of women survive five years following their diagnosis.
The average age of diagnosis in Australia is 64 – meaning it’s a cancer women in the Starts at 60 community need to take seriously. Unlike other cancers, there is no early detection test, meaning women need to act as soon as they notice symptoms. Worryingly, many of the biggest warning signs of ovarian cancer are linked with less-serious health issues and many women simply dismiss them for something else.
“With ovarian cancer, the four most common symptoms are increased abdominal size or persistent abdominal bloating, abdominal or pelvic lower tummy pain, feeling full after eating a small amount or needing to urinate often or urgently,” Sue Hegarty, Director of Support Services at Ovarian Cancer Australia, tells Starts at 60.
Some women experience just one symptom, while others notice a combination of symptoms or none at all.
“We encourage women, if they’ve experienced those symptoms on most days for two weeks, they go to the GP or if the symptoms are severe, they see their doctor without delay,” Hegarty says.
There are a number of factors that can put a woman at greater risk of an ovarian cancer diagnosis. While the exact cause for many ovarian cancers isn’t known, researchers know getting older is a major factor, usually impacting those who have already been through menopause.
Similarly, the risk of developing ovarian cancer is higher if a woman has one or more blood relatives, such as a mother, sister or daughter, who has had ovarian cancer.
“A family history of breast or colon cancer and a mutation in one of several known genes,” Hegarty says. “We know that about 15 to 20 per cent of all cases of ovarian cancer have an inherited mutated gene. The most common mutation is BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes that increase the risk of ovarian, breast and other cancers.”
Another common gene fault is lynch syndrome – also known as hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer or HNPCC. Medical conditions such as endometriosis, use of hormone replacement therapy, tobacco smoking and obesity can also increase the risk of a diagnosis.
While as many as 50 per cent of women believe a pap smear or cervical screening will detect ovarian cancer, it’s sadly not the case. Instead, this is a screening tool for cervical cancer, which is why it’s important to speak to a health professional as soon as anything unusual is detected.
“If the doctors are concerned that it could be ovarian cancer, they would normally do a pelvic examination,” Hegarty explains. “They would then usually order a transvaginal ultrasound and a CA-125 blood test.
These two blood tests can’t actually diagnose ovarian cancer, but they can give an indication of how likely it is for a woman to develop. The only way ovarian cancer is truly confirmed is through surgery.
A GP or doctor typically refers a patient to a gynaecological oncologist working within a multi-disciplinary team if they suspect a patient could have ovarian cancer.
If a woman is diagnosed, several treatment options are available. Sadly, most ovarian cancer is diagnosed at more advanced stages, but a combination of surgery and chemotherapy is common for most women.
“That will depend very much on how well the woman is and at what stage she presents with the disease,” Hegarty says. “There’s also a large number of treatments in clinical trials and also a whole host of new medications being trialled that will be added into the treatment regime for women into the future.”
It’s important to know that there’s always support and help available for women and their families dealing with ovarian cancer. Ovarian Cancer Australia has a helpline (1300 660 334) staffed by ovarian cancer support nurses and other health professionals to assist women and their families. There’s also a Resilience Kit available online that acts as a support guide for women going through ovarian cancer.
Always talk to a GP if you notice any symptoms as early detection is the key to beating ovarian cancer.
Important information: The information provided on this website is of a general nature and information purposes only. It does not take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. It is not personalised health advice and must not be relied upon as such. Before making any decisions about your health or changes to medication, diet and exercise routines you should determine whether the information is appropriate in terms of your particular circumstances and seek advice from a medical professional.