This article was written by one of The Food Medic team; London-based GP Dr Nirja Joshi.
March is ovarian cancer awareness month, and so we thought it would be a good time to recap the signs and symptoms to help you to understand a bit more about the condition and what to look out for.
What is Ovarian Cancer
Ovarian cancer is a type of female cancer, arising from the ovaries. The ovaries are female reproductive organs in the pelvis which produce oestrogen and progesterone as well as release an egg each month in women of childbearing age (1).
source Kinwun / Getty Images via verywellhealthcom
Is ovarian cancer easy to spot?
Unfortunately not. This is why it is important to raise awareness of ovarian cancer. There is no national screening programme in the UK which helps to detect ovarian cancer the same way as other female cancers, such as cervical and breast cancers. The ovaries are located in your pelvis, and hence symptoms tend not to show easily with ovarian cancer and this often leads to late diagnosis (3).
Symptoms can include bloating, feeling full very quickly after eating (early satiety), needing to urinate more frequently and urgently as well as pelvic pain (3). The difficulty, as I’m sure you will notice when you read these symptoms, is that they are very common and can be related to a multitude of conditions, so it can be very difficult to know when these symptoms may represent something more worrying, such as cancer. If you do have any of these symptoms, it is important to speak to your doctor to help to understand what the cause may be. If you are worried about cancer, your GP may speak to you on the phone first, then they may choose to bring you in to examine your abdomen or perform a vaginal examination to see if they can feel any masses. After this, they may choose to do a blood test, and then an ultrasound scan, this can help to identify signs of ovarian cancer (4). If you are worried about cancer specifically, tell you doctor so that they can address these worries.
Who is more likely to develop ovarian cancer?
Anyone with ovaries has the potential to develop ovarian cancer (5), including women, trans-men, intersex and non-binary individuals. The risks of developing ovarian cancer increase as you have more ovulation. Hence, half of the cases of ovarian cancer are found in those who are over 65 years old. Equally, those who start having periods early, or have a later menopause are at greater risk. As with many other cancers, smoking, and obesity are also risk factors. In addition, sometimes genetics can play a role, for example if you have the BRCA gene it can increase your risk of ovarian cancer (5). It is important that if you have a strong family history of female cancers, breast and ovarian, that you speak to your GP to see if you are at increased risk. If you have had other cancers, particularly breast or bowel cancer, this could increase your risk of ovarian cancer.
What happens next if your doctor suspects cancer?
The NHS has a “2 week wait” pathway for suspected cancers (6). This means that if your GP is worried about ‘red flag’ symptoms which may concern them about a patient having cancer, then they can be referred on this fast track pathway. Once this pathway is started, the patient should hear from the hospital for an appointment within 2 weeks. If your GP does refer you on this pathway, it is to rule out suspected cancer. Out of 10 people who are referred on this pathway, more than 9 will be found to not have cancer (6).
If you are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, what are the next steps?
This will depend on the type of cancer, the size of it and how far it has spread. The approach may involve surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, hormone therapy, targeted therapy or symptom control (7).
If you think you, or a family member has symptoms of ovarian cancer, do not hesitate to speak to your GP. If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, please visit the NHS website here useful resources.
- NHS. Ovarian Cancer – Treatment [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2022 Mar 4]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/ovarian-cancer/treatment/
- Cancer research UK. Your urgent suspected cancer referral [Internet]. Your urgent suspected cancer referral. 2022 [cited 2022 Mar 4]. Available from: https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/cancer-symptoms/what-is-an-urgent-referral#Does%20this%20mean%20I%20have%20cancer?
- NHS. Ovarian cancer – causes [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2022 Mar 3]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/ovarian-cancer/causes/
- Cancer research UK. Seeing your GP when you have symptoms of ovarian cancer [Internet]. Seeing your GP when you have symptoms of ovarian cancer. 2021 [cited 2022 Mar 3]. Available from: https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/ovarian-cancer/getting-diagnosed/seeing-your-gp
- NHS. Ovarian Cancer – Symptoms [Internet]. Ovarian cancer symptoms. 2022 [cited 2022 Mar 2]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/ovarian-cancer/symptoms/
- NHS. Ovarian Cancer [Internet]. Ovarian Cancer – NHS. 2022 [cited 2022 Mar 2]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/ovarian-cancer/
- Cancer Research UK. Ovarian Cancer [Internet]. What is Ovarian Cancer. 2021 [cited 2022 Mar 1]. Available from: https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/ovarian-cancer/what-is-ovarian-cancer