Gynaecologist and author of The Gynae Geek, Dr Anita busts common ovarian cancer myths this month
March is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, a much-needed opportunity to raise awareness of the symptoms of this disease. This helps with earlier diagnosis, associated with better outcomes. In the UK, the lifetime risk is one in 48 and most cases are diagnosed in women over 75. Only 15-20 percent of cases are genetic, so most won’t have a history of the disease in their family.
Symptoms suggestive of ovarian cancer include:
- Persistent bloating
- Feeling full quickly and/or loss of appetite
- Abdominal or pelvic pain (that’s your tummy and below)
- Needing to pass urine more often, or more urgently than normal
If you start to experience any of these symptoms for the first time and they’re persistent or happening more than 12 times per month, they should not be ignored. Your GP is your first port of call.
Even as a doctor myself, I find it quite overwhelming going to talk to a doctor about my own health so I totally understand if that’s your experience too. For this reason, I highly recommend taking a list of the symptoms that you’ve had, particular concerns that you’d like to express and any questions that you have. Your GP may arrange a blood test and an ultrasound scan to look at the ovaries, and may then refer you to the Rapid Access Clinic, where you’ll be seen within two weeks by a gynaecologist, who will examine you and arrange further necessary tests and investigations.
I see a lot of women with suspected ovarian cancer and thankfully most don’t have it, but the symptoms should never be ignored. I also hear a lot of myths about ovarian cancer, and these are probably the top four.
“I had a normal smear test so everything must be ok…”
This test only looks at the cells of the cervix (neck of the womb). Having a normal smear therefore doesn’t confirm that your ovaries are healthy, so even if you’ve had a normal smear test recently and you have the symptoms above, do not delay seeking medical advice. Unfortunately, we haven’t managed to develop a reliable screening test for ovarian cancer just yet, which is why it’s so important to make sure that you’re aware of the symptoms.
“I have PCOS, so i think i have a higher risk of ovarian cancer…”
Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is a common condition in which hormonal abnormalities stop you from ovulating (releasing an egg) and therefore developing lots of cysts (fluid-filled sacs) on the ovaries. These cysts are very different to the ones that can develop into cancer, and multiple studies have shown there is no increased risk of ovarian cancer in women with PCOS compared to women without.
“I have a raised ca125 so i must have cancer…”
CA125 is a marker in the blood that we use in conjunction with a scan and your symptoms to decide how likely it is that you have ovarian cancer. A raised level does not automatically mean that you have the disease, and there are actually lots of other things that can cause it to be raised in the absence of ovarian cancer. These include having endometriosis, liver disease, pelvic inflammatory disease, benign (non-cancerous ovarian cysts), fibroids, or even being on your period when the test is taken.
“I’ve got ovarian cancer from taking the contraceptive pill…”
The one thing that most people have never heard about the combined oral contraceptive pill (the type that contains oestrogen and progesterone) is that it actually protects against ovarian cancer! In fact, it may halve your risk. The Royal College of General Practitioners’ Oral Contraception Study published in 2017 showed that this protective effect also continues for several decades after stopping the medication.
Target Ovarian Cancer and The Eve Appeal are the two places that I recommend to my patients for reliable online information about ovarian cancer, and both have excellent support lines that you can call for advice.