A better first question is maybe what ovaries are... They’re the two small round organs that are part of the female reproductive system, storing and releasing eggs. Anyone who has ovaries (including women and transgender men) can get ovarian cancer. But because the ovaries are deep in your body and the symptoms look like lots of fairly common conditions – or worse - ‘women’s problems’, it’s often hard to diagnose.
As with most cancers, the earlier the diagnosis, the easier it is to treat – so understanding something about the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer is pretty important if you’ve got ovaries - or if you’re close to someone who has them.
Who is at risk of ovarian cancer?
While anyone with ovaries can get ovarian cancer, it mostly affects those over 50, although it can run in families. There’s some evidence that people who have had more periods – for instance those starting them young, going through menopause late, never using hormonal contraception or not having any pregnancies, are also more at risk.
There are also risks associated with having had breast or bowel cancer, having endometriosis or diabetes, and taking HRT (hormone replacement therapy).
What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?
According to the NHS, the main symptoms of ovarian cancer are:
- A bloated stomach or swollen tummy
- Pain in your pelvis – the area between your hip bones
- No or reduced appetite – including feeling full very quickly
- Changes to your wee – needing to go more often or more urgently
If these are symptoms you experience regularly – for instance more than 12 times in a month – it’s time to see a GP. But there are also other symptoms that can come alongside the main ones - or even in isolation. They include:
- Changes in bowel habits – including constipation or diarrhoea
- Pain in the back
- Weight loss
- Bleeding (from the vagina) post-menopause.
It’s worth noting there can be lots of conditions that include these symptoms – but it’s worth getting them checked out, and sorted out, as soon as possible.
How is ovarian cancer diagnosed?
The first step is to get to the GP, talk about ovarian cancer, your symptoms, and any family history.
Your GP is going to want to feel your tummy to check for lumps or painful places, and may want to do an internal examination too – so they can see and feel inside your vagina. They might also do a blood test, or send you on to a local hospital to see a specialist for more tests.
These might involve a pelvic or vaginal ultrasound scan, or even a CT scan, to get a picture of what’s going on inside your body.
Are there different kinds of ovarian cancer?
There are different types of ovarian cancer, but the most common form is epithelial ovarian cancer. Understanding the type, grade and stage of your ovarian cancer is very important – and helps your doctors work out how best to treat you.
Find out more about the types of ovarian cancer on the Cancer Research website.
How is ovarian cancer treated?
Your treatment will depend not just on the type and stage of your cancer, but also your general health.
The main treatments are surgery and chemotherapy, but there are also options for radiotherapy, targeted medications, and hormone therapy – depending on what’s going to work best for you.
What happens in ovarian cancer surgery?
Surgery may involve removing the ovaries and fallopian tubes, or a hysterectomy, removing your womb and cervix. Depending on whether or not the cancer has spread, parts of the bowel could also be removed.
What happens when you have chemotherapy or radiotherapy for ovarian cancer?
Chemotherapy is a medicine that kills cancer cells. It can be given before and/or after surgery, or it can be used on its own. There are different types of chemotherapy drugs, but for ovarian cancer you would usually have chemotherapy once every 3 weeks, or ‘cycles’. Typically you might have 6 cycles, or possibly more.
Most sessions take 3 to 4 hours, and the drugs are put into your body intravenously through a drip in your arm. This is often done in an outpatient appointment, though some people might stay in for 24 hours for a longer session. You could also need a central line – which stays in for the course of your treatment and runs into a large vein in the chest.
Find out more here.
Radiotherapy uses radiation to kill cancer cells, and is often used if other treatments aren’t right for you, or to help alleviate symptoms like discomfort or bleeding. Although it’s less common as a form of treatment for ovarian cancer, it can be used in later stages of the disease, and is usually done once a day, with a rest period at weekends.
Find out more here.
How can my Equipsme plan help?
Equipsme plans do not cover the private treatment of a diagnosed cancer condition but we can still help if you have symptoms that you do not know the diagnosis for yet – and need to speak to someone to try and find out faster.
All plans come with GP access, which means that if you can’t get an appointment with your own GP, or if you want a second opinion, you’ve got another option. Too many women are dismissed as ‘just’ having IBS or period pain, and with Equipsme you can often get help sooner if you don’t feel you’re getting the right attention.
If a GP provides a referral to see a specialist, those with diagnosis cover as part of their plan can also ask if their condition is covered and, if so, get to see a specialist more quickly. The NHS is brilliant when it comes to cancer treatment – so the faster you get your diagnosis the easier it may be to treat back in the NHS, and that’s what Equipsme can help with.
How can I find out more about ovarian cancer?
Cancer Research website
Macmillan Cancer Support