Ovarian cancer mainly affects older women between the ages of 40 and 60, with 53% of cases in the UK each year diagnosed in women who are 65 or over. But it can affect younger women. Each year around 7,400 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the UK.
What is ovarian cancer?
The most common type of ovarian cancer starts when cells become abnormal in the outer layer of tissue on the ovaries, while other types originate in the ovary cells that produce hormones or in the ovary cells that produce eggs. This can grow into a tumour. An early diagnosis makes it easier to treat.
How is ovarian cancer caused?
Nobody knows exactly what triggers ovarian cancer, but scientists have identified factors which increase or decrease your risk.
- Having gone through the menopause
- If you have a family history of ovarian or breast cancer
- Those with endometriosis, where tissue that behaves like menstrual tissue is found outside the womb in other parts of the body
- Taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for symptoms of menopause may increase your cancer risk slightly
- Lifestyle can also play a part, if you smoke or are overweight
You’re less at risk if you:
- Have had children
- Breast fed
- Took the contraceptive pill
A family history of ovarian cancer
If you’ve had relatives that have had breast or ovarian cancer, it’s worth getting yourself checked to see if you’re a carrier of the same genes that may make you predisposed to developing these cancers. Thanks to the advancements in technology, this involves a simple blood test. At central London clinic Twenty-five Harley Street, we offer a type of DNA screening, known as Next Generation Sequencing (ngs). Approximately 5-10% of breast, and 10-15% of ovarian cancer cases are believed to be hereditary, and a majority of cases are caused by mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. These results can be assessed by our dedicated GPs and gynaecological oncologists.
What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?
It can be tricky to diagnose ovarian cancer as it often doesn’t have symptoms, which is why it’s referred to as ‘the silent killer’. Symptoms can be broad, and easily mistaken for those of other common conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or menstrual problems.
You should see a GP if you have had any of the following symptoms persistently for three weeks or more:
- Discomfort in your stomach or pelvic area
- Constantly feel bloated
- A swollen abdomen
- A frequently need to go to the loo to pee
- Feel full quickly when you eat.
Initial checks with your GP
If you are worried or unsure whether you have symptoms of ovarian cancer, it is always a good idea to book an appointment with a GP. They will be able to discuss any symptoms, and assess your general health, as well as discover whether your family history puts you more at risk.
- They may feel your stomach for signs of swelling or lumps
- And could carry out an internal examination
- Screening for ovarian cancer
If your GP thinks that further exploration is needed, they will send you for a blood test. At the clinic Twenty-five Harley Street, we offer a blood screening test for ovarian cancer. Screening involves taking a sample of blood that will be analysed at a laboratory for markers of the disease. A quick diagnosis will mean that you get the treatment you need fast. And regular screening means that you have peace of mind, especially if you have a family history of the disease.
Blood tests to help diagnose cancer
There are certain proteins and hormones that the body makes if cancer cells are present, known as ‘tumour markers or biomarkers’. CA125 (cancer antigen-125) is a type of protein found on the surface of ovarian cancer cells, so raised levels could be a sign that you have the disease.
What if tests show I’ve got high levels of CA125?
There’s no need to panic if your levels are high, as it can be an indicator of conditions other than cancer.
Other reasons for raised levels of CA125 include:
If you have got high levels of CA125 present in your blood, your GP will refer you for an ultrasound scan to explore the possible causes further.
It is worth noting, that in the early stages of ovarian cancer you may not have a raised level of CA125, so if your symptoms persist you should return to see your doctor.
An ultrasound scan to check for ovarian cancer
If after screening, blood tests indicate you could have ovarian cancer, then your GP will send you for an ultrasound scan.
This scan will help doctors get a clearer picture inside of your body. The image is created using high-frequency sound waves which can be seen on a screen. The doctor will be looking for any signs of changes in your ovaries that could be caused by cancer, or other conditions such as fibroids or a build-up of fluid.
What happens during a scan?
The NHS uses two modes for scanning women.
- An abdominal ultrasound, involves lying on a couch and loosening or removing your lower clothes so that your tummy and pelvis is exposed. Your doctor will then move an ultrasound probe over your abdomen to create an image of your ovaries.
- A transvaginal ultrasound, is used by doctors at Twenty-five Harley Street. In this instance, you’ll be asked to remove your under garments so you can bend and separate your legs, much like preparing for a smear test. A doctor will pass an ultrasound probe into your vagina to see your ovaries clearly on a screen.
If any masses or abnormalities are found, you gynaecologist will refer you for further tests.
If further tests are needed to confirm or rule out cancer, then your doctor can refer you to a hospital where a more detailed look of at your ovaries will be taken using X-rays or a tiny camera - a laparoscopy, and biopsies.
How is ovarian cancer treated?
Treatment depends on what stage the disease is at. It will involve surgery and chemotherapy. If cancer is diagnosed early, it may be possible for surgeons to remove the affected ovary and its fallopian tube. It may be that both ovaries are removed, and in some cases it may be necessary to have a hysterectomy where the womb is taken away.
What are the survival rates for ovarian cancer?
Sadly, in many cases of ovarian cancer, by the time it’s diagnosed the disease has already started to spread. This is why screening can play a vital part in identifying it early, and making it easier to treat. About 50% of women with ovarian cancer in the UK live for at least 5 years after diagnosis, with 1 in 3 living at least 10 years.
[sources: NHS, Cancer Research UK & ovarian.org.uk]
25 Harley Street's Consultant Gynaecologists
Mr Gardner is Clinical Director for Gynaecology at the Queen Alexandra Hospital. A specialist in endometrial cancer screening and colposcopy. >Read more
A consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist based in London. Within the NHS he practises at Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust. Mr Athanasias has developed special skills in minimally invasive surgery. >Read more
Miss Tania Adib is a Consultant Gynaecologist at Queen’s Hospital, where she is the Lead Clinician for Colposcopy, and Honorary Consultant Gynaecologist at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. >Read more
You can phone to discuss a consultation on 020 3883 9525, or email [email protected]