Ovarian cancer: Warning signs older women need to know

An important part of ovarian cancer treatment is detecting the signs of the cancer early. Source: Getty

No woman wants to be told they’re living with ovarian cancer, however in Australia, four women are diagnosed and three lose their battle with the disease each day.

In 2022 alone, an estimated 1,300 Australian women were diagnosed with ovarian cancer, with the average age of diagnosis in Australia being 66.

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.

The most commonly reported symptoms of ovarian cancer

While there is no obvious sign of ovarian cancer, Sue Hegarty, Director of Support Services at Ovarian Cancer Australia, tells Starts at 60 there are four common symptoms women need to be aware of when it comes to ovarian cancer.

  • Increased abdominal size or persistent abdominal bloating
  • Abdominal or pelvic (lower tummy) pain
  • Feeling full after eating a small amount
  • Needing to urinate often or urgently

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.

Source: Getty

Causes of ovarian cancer

There are a number of factors that can put a woman at greater risk of an ovarian cancer diagnosis. While the exact cause of many ovarian cancers isn’t known, researchers know getting older is a major factor, usually impacting those who have already been through menopause.

Other facts that increase a woman’s risk of ovarian cancer include:

  • Age (the risk increases for those over 50)
  • Early period (those who have started menstruating before 12 years old) and late menopause
  • Women who have had their first child after 35
  • Fertility treatment or oestrogen-only hormone replacement therapy

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.

How is ovarian cancer diagnosed?

While over 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 a biopsy.

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 LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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