Why is ovarian cancer called the silent killer?
Ovarian Cancer is often called ‘the silent killer’, because the symptoms are often subtle. However, early detection can lead to curative treatment for women where the cancer never returns. Sadly the majority of women (70%) currently present when the disease has spread widely in the abdomen and pelvis. There are effective treatments available with a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, monoclonal antibody therapy and sometimes radiotherapy cure from the disease may be possible as the disease often returns.
The reason women present when the disease has spread in the late stages is because the symptoms are very non-specific and often mistaken for ‘tummy troubles’ or period pains.
Far too many women dismiss the symptoms for too long before going to see their GP. Unfortunately there is not always a specific symptom and the symptoms may be subtle so it is difficult for a GP to identify the problem and may contribute to GPs sometimes suspecting Irritable Bowel Syndrome as being the problem
The facts about ovarian cancer
Ovarian Cancer is the fifth most common cancer amongst women in the UK
- More than 7,000 women diagnosed each year
- There are 4,300 deaths annually
- It is estimated that as many as one in 50 women will develop ovarian cancer
Unfortunately, although early diagnosis is crucial to a successful treatment, ovarian cancer has no clearly defined precancerous stage and thus unlike cervical cancer, there is no established screening programme for the majority of people.
The UKCTOCs study has suggested the combination of an annual ultrasound assessment of the ovaries and a Ca125 blood test may identify ovarian cancer in women who have not developed symptoms and thus their disease may be detected at a less advanced stage.
Should I have the BRCA1 test?
For the small number of women with a strong family history of Breast Cancer and or Ovarian Cancer genetic testing is available which is looking for abnormalities (mutations) in the BRCA1 and 2 genes. In this situation if a mutation is identified then increased surveillance with ultrasound and blood tests maybe indicated. Surgical removal of the ovaries and or breasts after completion of a woman’s family (prophylactic surgery) may be discussed.
What are the survival rates for ovarian cancer?
Early diagnosis is important when it comes to ovarian cancer. When women are diagnosed in the early stages of ovarian cancer they have a 90% chance of surviving for more than five years. This reduces to even less than 40% when diagnosed in the later stages so it is important women know what symptoms to look for and that they make their GP aware of those symptoms as soon as possible.
The four main symptoms of ovarian cancer you should look out for are:
- Persistent bloating or increased stomach size
- Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
- Needing to urinate more frequently
- Persistent stomach pain
What should I do if I am worried about ovarian cancer?
My advice to any woman suffering from any of these symptoms is to go to their GP and discuss the matter thoroughly. Women must feel confident that when they visit their GP with any of the symptoms mentioned above they will be assessed with the possibility of ovarian cancer in mind.
Mr Francis Gardner is Clinical Director of Gynaecology and Gynaecological Oncology at Queen Alexandra Hospital, Portsmouth.
Mr Gardner sees patients privately at Twenty-five Harley Street.