Often labelled a ‘silent killer’, ovarian cancer has symptoms you should look out for. Learn to identify these and aim for early detection, writes Dr Evelyn Lewin

Ovarian cancer
 
 

 

Ovarian cancer is commonly referred to as a ‘silent' disease, assumed to creep up with no warning - at least until it's too late. The overlooked truth, however, is that there are symptoms of this condition.

Unfortunately, the most common symptoms are, well, common and easily explained away by lifestyle and minor health issues. Unlike other diseases, which may have more worrying and unusual symptoms, those associated with ovarian cancer are vague and non-specific.

Main symptoms


  • Abdominal or pelvic pain
  • Increased abdominal size or bloating
  • Needing to urinate urgently or very often
  • Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly

Monitor yourself for symptoms

According to Ovarian Cancer Australia, a good way to start looking out for symptoms is to recall how often you experienced the four main symptoms of ovarian cancer (see above) over the last month. If they seem more frequent than simply a ‘one-off' episode, it's time to keep a symptom diary, which you can download at ovariancancer.net.au. Then see your GP to discuss your findings.

Apart from the main four symptoms, others may include changes in your bowel habits, bleeding in between your periods, back pain, indigestion and feeling exhausted.

Know your risk factors

As most causes of ovarian cancer are unknown, there is no sure-fire way to reduce your chances of developing this disease. However, you need to be aware of your risks.

According to Ovarian Cancer Australia, genes account for around 10 per cent of ovarian cancers. Simply put, this means that if you have family members who have either breast or ovarian cancer, you may have inherited a faulty gene. This can increase your chances of developing this disease. The most common genes associated with ovarian cancer are BRCA1, BRCA2 and, less often, HNPCC.

To find out your genetic risks, discuss your family history with a genetic counsellor.

Reduce your risks

Apart from genetic risks, other risk factors for ovarian cancer can be divided into two groups: those you have some control over and those out of your control. For instance, ovarian cancer is more likely in women over 50, caucasians and Ashkenazi jews, but you can't change your age or background.

Factors you can control include eating a low fat diet, losing weight if obese, and quitting smoking. The good news is, these measures will benefit your health in other ways too.

Protective factors Factors that may protect against ovarian cancer include having children and using the pill. The theory is, the less time you spend ovulating, the lower your risk of this disease.

What about screening tests?

Unlike cervical cancer, which can be detected via a pap smear, there is no screening test for ovarian cancer. Funding for research is vital, as more understanding is needed to develop a screening test, which could then lead to earlier detection and, in turn, better survival rates.

Survival

If caught early, ovarian cancer has a reasonable survival rate. The problem is that two thirds of cases are not diagnosed until late in the disease, when the chances of survival reduce dramatically.

In fact, around 1,200 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer every year in Australia, and approximately 800 women die of it annually. Sadly, only four out of every ten women diagnosed with this condition are still alive five years after diagnosis.

The future

Fortunately, there may be breakthroughs on the horizon. According to a recent study involving researchers from the Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR), new genetic variants have been identified. The finding of these mutations may lead to earlier detection and possible preventative treatments in the future.

What should I do now?

The key message from Ovarian Cancer Australia is to stay aware, but not alarmed. Note the frequency of any symptoms you may experience, and follow them up if concerned.

Worried about your health? Get expert advice on lifestyle, fitness and nutrition.