In the UK, around 7,100 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year. It’s the fifth most common cancer among women after breast cancer, bowel cancer, lung cancer and cancer of the uterus.
Ovarian cancer mortality rates have decreased overall for women in many of the broad age groups in the UK since the early 1970s, but have increased in those aged 70-79 and 80+.
This means it is most common in women who have been through the menopause (usually over the age of 50), although it can affect women of any age.
3 early symptoms
As the symptoms of ovarian cancer can be similar to those of other conditions, it can be difficult to recognise. It is particularly difficult to detect as hidden deep in the abdominal cavity, ovaries are difficult to view or feel; abnormalities are not always found early.
Even with the most rigorous surveillance, ovarian cancer is often detected only in its advanced stage. Even when detected early, the disease often requires aggressive treatment such as chemotherapy.
For these reasons, it is important to consult with health care experts who are familiar with the standards of care and risk management in high-risk women. However, there are three main symptoms that are more frequent in women diagnosed with ovarian cancer. They are:
1 increased abdominal size and persistent bloating (not bloating that comes and goes)
2 persistent pelvic and abdominal pain
3 difficulty eating and feeling full quickly, or feeling nauseous
There can also be other symptoms, such as back pain, needing to pass urine more frequently than usual, and pain during sex.
However these may be the result of other conditions in the pelvic area so try keeping a diary to record how many of these symptoms you have over a longer period.
See your GP if you have these symptoms regularly (on most days for three weeks or more). Although it’s unlikely they’re being caused by a serious problem, it’s best to check.
The stress connection
Menopause and the many changes it brings can certainly be stressful, and researchers at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center report that chronic stress triggers a chain of molecular events that protects breakaway ovarian cancer cells from destruction.
Under stress conditions the body products heightened levels of the fight-or-flight stress hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine and the researchers discovered that this permits more malignant cells to avoid being killed off.
They can safely leave the primary tumour and migrate as they move through the body in the blood and in ascites (fluid that accumulates in the abdomen of ovarian cancer patients) where they can re-attach to colonize new sites elsewhere.
Researchers also found that ovarian cancer patients face earlier mortality when a crucial protein activated by these stress hormones is present at high levels in their tumours and that depressed patients have higher levels of the protein.
Reducing stress levels, and therefore adrenaline levels, is a crucial part of any cancer treatment programme, but particularly for ovarian cancer.
How to help yourself
You may be eligible for screening if you’re at high risk of developing the condition due to a strong family history, or if you’ve inherited a specific abnormal gene.
If you’re at high risk, your GP can refer you to your local genetics service or family cancer clinic. You may be screened for ovarian cancer when you’re over the age of 35, or when you’re five years away from the age at which your youngest relative was diagnosed with the condition. From this point, you’ll be screened again once a year.
Research into ovarian cancer has found that the condition may be linked to being overweight or obese. Losing weight through regular exercise and a healthy, balanced diet may to help lower your risk of getting ovarian cancer.
Being overweight at menopause carries many health risks, and tackling oestrogen dominance is often a good first step. Progesterone can help reduce weight and help protect against hormonally based cancers of the breast, uterus and ovaries.