How to spot signs of Ovarian Cancer

In her weekly column Dr Michelle O'Driscoll shares some advice on ovarian cancer
How to spot signs of Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer symptoms can include feeling bloated, a swollen tummy, pain or dragging in the lower tummy, back or legs, poor appetite and feeling full easily, and changes in bladder or bowel such as constipation or a feeling of urgency.

AROUND 400 women every year in Ireland are diagnosed with ovarian cancer. For women it’s the fourth most common type of cancer diagnosed. It occurs when normal cells in one of the ovaries change and grow, forming a tumour.

The types of cell changes that occur can vary. Some tumours are very like normal cells and grow slowly without spreading, while some affect the tissue that covers the ovary (9 out of 10 cases), Rarer versions can affect the cells that produce the eggs, or that support the ovaries’ location in the body.

Growth that expands can cause an effect on other areas of the body due to their close proximity, as the ovaries are found deep in the pelvis.

Bladder and bowel symptoms may occur, and it is frequently symptoms from these areas that might first alert you to something being wrong.

Ovarian cancer symptoms can include feeling bloated, a swollen tummy, pain or dragging in the lower tummy, back or legs, poor appetite and feeling full easily, and changes in bladder or bowel such as constipation or a feeling of urgency.

Energy levels can drop, and of course any gynecological symptoms such as irregular bleeding, pain during sex, or abnormal discharge should be investigated, as should unexplained weight loss. It’s important to note that most of these symptoms could be attributed to a number of potential causes, but investigation is advised.

There are no reliable screening tests for the early stages of ovarian cancer currently, so a regular screening programme doesn’t exist, unless you’re known to have one of the high risk genes, and in that case screening or surgery to reduce risk may be offered.

This screening process involves an ultrasound scan and a blood test for a specific marker after the age of 35.

Not previously having had children, or having your first child after age 35 may increase ovarian cancer risk. This is because your risk of developing it is reduced the less you ovulate, and you pause ovulation while pregnant. For the same reason, taking oral contraception or breastfeeding can reduce your risk. Conversely, being overweight or a smoker can increase your risk, so lifestyle measures have a role to play in prevention.

Ovarian cancer risk is higher in women over the age of 50, post menopause, or with a family history or two or more close relatives (mother, sister, daughter) having had ovarian or breast cancer.

Should you be concerned, an initial examination by the GP would involve checking your tummy and vaginal area. If further investigation is warranted, the types of tests you might undergo would be ultrasound (this can be via the tummy or through placing a probe into the vagina for clearer pictures) laparoscopy, which involves a very small cut in your tummy under general anesthetic to insert a camera and take cell samples, and blood tests.

In the event of an ovarian cancer diagnosis, further tests can include an MRI scan, CT scan, PET scan or gastroscopy. The cancer would be staged, according to how much it has progressed. The earlier the cancer is detected, the better the prognosis. Treatment paths are based on the findings of these tests, and can involve surgery, chemotherapy, targeted therapies or rarely radiotherapy.

Regardless of treatment, regular checkups will follow to make sure that treatment has been a success and to detect any relapse.

Emotional support after a cancer diagnosis is vital, to deal with feelings of stress, sadness, anger, or fear of the cancer returning. The mental recovery is just as important as the physical one, and is bound to take time.

Getting back to some normality as soon as you feel able will help, as will leaning on the support of others.

Ultimately, as with all cancers, early detection is absolutely key. The less the progression, the better the prognosis. Stay attuned to any unusual symptoms, and don’t put off getting them checked, for peace of mind.

Stay attuned to any unusual symptoms and don’t put off getting them checked, for peace of mind.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr Michelle O’Driscoll is a pharmacist, researcher and founder of InTuition, a health and wellness education company.

Her research lies in the area of mental health education, and through InTuition she delivers health promotion workshops to corporate and academic organisations nationally.

See www.intuition.ie

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