8 May 2020

The importance of detecting the symptoms of ovarian cancer

ovarian cancer and fertility

Consultant Gynaecologist
Dr Mireia Galian

IVI Birmingham


The importance of detecting the symptoms of ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer, is one of the most common cancers affecting women. Each year in the UK, 7,300 women are diagnosed with this form of cancer and the lifetime risk of developing it is around two per cent. Although it mainly affects women of non-reproductive age, just over 12% occurs in women below the age of 45.

In this IVI blog article, we also look at the options for ovarian cancer treatment, how it may affect your future fertility and what are the options to protect yourself.

What is ovarian cancer?

There are many types of ovarian tumours, the most common ones being the epithelial ovarian tumours, which originate from the outer surface of the ovaries.

Unfortunately, there is no standard screening test for ovarian cancer, and in many cases the symptoms are easily confused with signs of other less serious conditions. As a result, diagnosis usually happens at an advanced stage when the cancer has already spread within the abdomen and the survival rate is only 47%. However, thanks to improvements in diagnosis and earlier treatment, the overall 5-year survival rate is around 92% if diagnosed at early stages. Hence, why it is so important to recognize the symptoms and be aware of the risk factors for ovarian cancer.

How to recognise ovarian cancer symptoms

Common symptoms of ovarian cancer can include:

  • Loss of weight or appetite
  • having a swollen abdomen and/or feeling constantly bloated
  • experiencing discomfort in your stomach and/or pelvic area
  • the need to urinate more frequently

Unfortunately, these symptoms are not easy to recognise because they can be easily confused with other disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome or other minor gynaecological conditions. Nevertheless, knowing if you have one or more of the risk factors for ovarian cancer can help you and your GP to think of ovarian cancer as a potential diagnosis.

Risk factors include:

  • Age: ovarian cancer becomes more common with advancing age. The risk increases sharply at age 45 and with a peak between 75 and 79 years old.
  • Family history: having a sister or mother diagnosed with ovarian cancer does not necessarily mean it will happen to you too, but it increases threefold your risk compared to women without family history of ovarian cancer.
  • Other external factors like smoking and health conditions such as obesity, endometriosis or diabetes could increase your risk of developing ovarian cancer.


What are the options for treatment of ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer treatment depends on the age of the patient and the type, stage and location of the cancer. The most likely treatments are:

  • Surgery to the tumour/s. This could include removing one or both ovaries, plus possibly the womb and fallopian tubes.
  • Chemotherapy, which is frequently used after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells. It can also be used before surgery to shrink the tumours.


Will treatment for ovarian cancer cause infertility?

In women with ovarian cancer, where the ovary is site of the primary cancer, the challenge is to simultaneously remove cancer cells and protect and preserve healthy cells (eggs).

Some patients, will need radical surgery that removes the womb and the ovaries resulting in infertility. However, if the surgery is less aggressive and allows at least one ovary to remain, fertility can be maintained. The downside is that, even if that is the case, the subsequent need of chemotherapy could affect the remaining healthy cells and lead to premature ovarian failure, menopause and infertility.

Clearly, the primary purpose of the treatment is to save the patient’s life, but a multidisciplinary team of specialists is necessary to advise and help patients to preserve their fertility and future of quality life.

Some of the options that may be possible include:

Preservation of fertility: egg or embryo freezing

You may like to read more about this and related issues in our article about cancer and fertility.

Preservation of ovarian tissue

In cancers that only affect one of the ovaries, ovarian tissue of the healthy ovary can be preserved. Although the cryopreserved tissue can be transplanted after completing the cancer treatment, the later transplant in cancer survivors may pose a  risk of reimplantation and dissemination of the primary cancer as the healthy ovary may also contain cancer cells.


Do you need to know more about ovarian cancer?

Your GP should be your first point of contact for advice and information and possible referral to the appropriate specialist. But if you need to know more, in the meantime, Target Ovarian Cancer and Cancer Research UK are helpful sources of information in the UK.


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