What is Ovarian Cancer?
The ovaries are small almond-shaped organs that are part of the female reproductive system. Each ovary is approximately 2 – 4cm in width and they sit on either side of the uterus.
With each ovary, there are germ cells that eventually develop into eggs. The ovaries are also responsible for producing female hormones – oestrogen and progesterone.
Ovarian cancer is the eighth most common cause of cancer and the sixth most common cause of cancer deaths in Australia.
There are three main types of ovarian cancer.
- Common epithelial type (in 90% of cases). These arise from the cells on the outside of the ovary.
- Germ cell type. These arise from the cells that produce eggs.
- Rare stromal type. These arise from the supporting tissues within the ovary.
There are usually no obvious signs of ovarian cancer as the symptoms are often vague and can represent other causes such as gastro intestinal-related symptoms.
- Persistent abdominal bloating or increase in the size of the abdomen
- Urge to urinate often or urgently
- Back, abdominal or pelvic pain
- Feeling of fullness after eating a small amount of food
- Irregular menstrual cycle
- Pain during intercourse
- Unexpected weight loss or weight gain
- Indigestion or nausea
- Family history – especially if you carry a known gene such as a BRCA1 or 2 gene mutation
- Age – increased risk for women over 50 years of age
- Cultural background
- If you have never taken the oral contraceptive pill
If you are experiencing some of the above symptoms, it is recommended that you first visit your GP who will arrange a number of tests and investigations to determine the cause.
- Pelvic ultrasound
- Blood tests
Once these results are through you may then be referred to a Gynaecologist for a full gynaecological examination including a vaginal examination.
Treatment will depend on the type and extent of the ovarian cancer and the patient’s general health. Treatment may include a combination of surgery and chemotherapy.
It is recommended that women diagnosed with ovarian cancer be referred to a gynaecological oncologist.
At present, there is no current reliable screening for ovarian cancer available.
A regular two-yearly check up with your Gynaecologist is recommended. If you have risk factors, you will be advised that a yearly check-up is preferable.
It is important to remember that most women who experience the above symptoms do not have ovarian cancer.
There have been a number of studies looking at screening high risk women with blood tests and ultrasound. However, most studies have shown only about a 25% success rate at best in early diagnosis.