According to doctors, regular blood tests every 4 months could detect tumours early in women at high risk of ovarian cancer. In a trial carried out on over 4,000 women, cancers were detected earlier thus enabling them to be treated more promptly.
The findings were published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology and focused on women who were at a higher risk of developing the cancer. These included women with a family history of cancer, women over the age of 65, women who struggle with obesity and women who have suffered from breast cancer. The trial monitored levels of a chemical called CA125 which is produced by ovarian tissue to see if its levels were raised. This can be a sign of cancer.
The key principle of all cancer treatment is early detection thus increasing the chances of survival.
Surgery is sometimes recommended as a preventative measure for women who fall into the high risk group. The results of blood tests can help with the timing of these especially for younger women who still want the possibility of having children.
Ovarian Cancer – The Basics
There is a tragic myth among many healthcare professionals and patients that early stage ovarian cancer has no symptoms. Early diagnosis saves lives, yet too many of us don’t understand or recognise the symptoms of this type of cancer.
What are the Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer?
In the early stages the symptoms of ovarian cancer are usually vague and patients often attribute their symptoms to other conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, pre-menstrual syndrome or a temporary bladder problem. The main difference is the persistence and gradual worsening of symptoms which may include:
- Pain in the pelvis
- Pain in the lower side of the body
- Pain in the lower stomach
- Back pain
- Regular or persistent bloating
- Indigestion or heartburn
- Feeling full rapidly when eating
- More frequent and urgent urination
- Pain during sexual intercourse
- Constipation or changes in bowel habits
As the cancer progresses these symptoms are also possible:
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
You should make an appointment to see your GP if you have concerns about your symptoms, are in an at-risk group or have family members who have been diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer.
Diagnosis of Ovarian Cancer
Your GP will discuss your symptoms, medical history and family history with you before carrying out a vaginal examination. Further tests will then be made available and may include:
Blood test – There is a cancer marker called CA 125 which is made by certain cells in the body. The level of this protein can be high if you have ovarian cancer. But your levels of CA125 can also be high if you have fibroids, endometriosis or infection. Because of this, the test isn’t used on its own to screen for ovarian cancer.
Ultrasound – Ultrasound scans use high frequency sound waves to create an image of the ovaries and their surroundings. They can help doctors see the size and texture of the ovaries as well as any cysts.
Laparoscopy – This is a procedure to look at your fallopian tubes, ovaries and uterus, using a thin tube with a camera on the end, inserted into your abdomen. Your doctor may use this procedure to remove small samples of tissues (biopsies) from your ovaries to test for cancer.
CT (computerised tomography) scan – X-rays are used to create a 3D picture of the target area.
MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan – Magnets and radio waves produce 2D and 3D pictures of the target area.
Colonoscopy – If the patient has had bleeding from the rectum, or constipation. the doctor may order a colonoscopy to examine the large intestine. This involves a thin tube with a camera at the end being inserted into the rectum.
Abdominal fluid aspiration – A build up of fluid in the abdomen might indicate that the ovarian cancer has spread. A thin needle is inserted through the skin into the abdomen and a sample of liquid is extracted. This is then checked in the laboratory for cancer cells.
Chest X-ray – This will help the doctor to see if the cancer has spread to the lungs or to the pleural space surrounding the lungs.
New research developments
In recent developments, a trial conducted by researchers at University College London has demonstrated that a new method of screening can detect twice as many women with the disease as conventional strategies.
If you would like to read the full study please click on the following link:
In further research, scientists from the University of Plymouth have found that Auranofin, a gold containing drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, could potentially improve the prognosis for ovarian cancer patients with a faulty BRCA1 gene.
Treatment of Ovarian Cancer
If you are diagnosed with ovarian cancer your treatment will depend on the type of cancer, how far it has spread, your general health and other issues personal to you.
Almost all women with ovarian cancer need surgery to remove as much of the tumour as possible. If the cancer hasn’t spread, it may be possible to remove just your single affected ovary and fallopian tube. If the cancer has spread, you may need to have both ovaries, your womb, nearby lymph nodes and surrounding tissue removed. This is a total hysterectomy.
You may be offered chemotherapy before surgery to shrink the tumour in preparation for surgery. Alternatively, you may be offered chemotherapy after surgery to destroy any cancer cells that weren’t removed by the operation.
The exact chemotherapy treatment you have will depend on your type of ovarian cancer. Carboplatin is a common type of chemotherapy medicine used to treat ovarian cancer. This may be given on its own or with another medicine, paclitaxel. However there are many other chemotherapy medicines also available. You will usually have a course of treatment with several doses of medicines at regular intervals over a period of weeks.
Radiotherapy uses radiation to destroy cancer cells but is not often used to treat ovarian cancer. However, you may be offered it after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells.
After your treatment you will need to attend hospital appointments and have regular check-ups to see if any of the cancer remains. If further cancer is found, you may be able to have more treatment to remove it.
Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month
Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month hopes to raise the profile of the disease and highlight the symptoms making it easier for women to recognise the condition. The charity Target Ovarian Cancer are encouraging women to inform themselves and others so that more women can be diagnosed sooner. They have come up with the Start Making Noise Campaign to help raise awareness of the disease. You can read more about their campaign by clicking on the link above.
Finally, if you are at risk of ovarian cancer, it is vital that you monitor any changes in your body and weigh up the risks and benefits of being screened via blood tests, versus undertaking preventative surgery.