Bloating in the tummy is one of the major symptoms of ovarian cancer, yet only one third of women experiencing it will make an appointment to see their GP. These figures come from the charity, Target Ovarian Cancer who are concerned about the alarmingly low rate of awareness that this is a major symptom of cancer.
Many women try to remedy their problem by changing their diet, believing the bloating could be a sign of coeliac disease, gluten intolerance or irritable bowel syndrome. Bloating may be caused by these conditions but if it is persistent for several days each week for a period of three weeks or more, it should be checked out.
Let us take a more detailed look at ovarian cancer in an attempt to raise awareness as with all cancers, early diagnosis is critical.
March has been designated Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month and May 8th is World Ovarian Cancer Day. The main aim of both these campaigns is to try to improve the early detection of the disease which affects over 7000 women in the UK each year. Whereas early detection tests for breast cancer are relatively commonplace, 75-85% of women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed only at a late stage, when the cancer has spread and prognosis is poor.
It is the fifth most common cancer in the UK after breast cancer, bowel cancer, lung cancer and cancer of the uterus. It mostly affects women over 50 although younger women can suffer from it as well. Worldwide, around 140,000 women die of ovarian cancer every year.
As there is no effective surveillance technique for detecting early stage ovarian cancer, doctors are focused instead on identifying women at risk and finding effective preventive methods.
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
If you experience bloating, pressure or pain in the abdomen or pelvis that persists for more than a few weeks you should see your doctor immediately. If you have already been to the doctor and ovarian cancer was not diagnosed, but treatment is not relieving your symptoms, either go to see your doctor again or get a second opinion. It is important that the evaluation includes a pelvic examination.
People with close family members who have had ovarian or breast cancer should see a doctor who is trained to detect ovarian cancer.
What are the risk factors for developing ovarian cancer?
- Family history – There are two genes – BRCA1 and BRCA2 – which significantly raise the risk of developing ovarian cancer. Those genes are inherited and genetic screening can determine whether somebody carries either of the genes. Women with relatives who either have or have had colon cancer, prostate cancer or uterine cancer are also at higher risk of ovarian cancer.
- Age – The majority of ovarian cancers occur in women over 65 years of age. A higher percentage of post-menopausal women develop ovarian cancer compared to pre-menopausal women.
- High number of total lifetime ovulations – Four principal factors influence the total – never having been pregnant, never having taken the contraceptive pill, early start of menstruation, late start of menopause – all these factors can contribute to a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer.
- Breast cancer – Women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer have a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer.
- HRT (Hormone replacement therapy) – Experts say the risk grows the longer the HRT continues and returns to normal as soon as the treatment stops.
- Obesity – Being obese or overweight increases the risk and the more overweight you are, the higher the risk.
- Endometriosis – This is a condition in which cells that are normally found inside the uterus are found growing outside it. Women who develop endometriosis have an approximately 30% higher risk of developing ovarian cancer.
- Shift work – Scientists from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle, USA, found that women who work shifts are more likely to develop ovarian cancer.
To read about some of the current research into detection and treatment, you can follow this link to our earlier article.
If you are concerned about cancer in general and would like more help and advice, please click on this link to the Macmillan Cancer Support Organisation
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