Women's health

Why ovarian cancer is called the silent killer

Why ovarian cancer is called the silent killer Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month

It’s been called the “silent killer” – a cancer that can spread before women are even aware they have it.

That’s because ovarian cancer symptoms can be vague and easily confused with a host of other, less serious conditions.

In fact, it is more common than cervical cancer: each year around 6,500 women in the UK are diagnosed with the disease and more than 4,000 lose their lives to it.

Despite these frightening statistics, however, experts insist the disease can be stopped in its tracks if women are made aware of the signs.

When ovarian cancer is found in the early stages, up to 90 per cent of women survive for more than five years. But two out of three cases are diagnosed in the later stages of the disease.

Now, for Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, women’s cancer charities are keen to get the message out so that more lives can be saved.

Gilda Witte of Ovarian Cancer Action says: “British women are far less likely than other women in Europe to get an early diagnosis of ovarian cancer and that means they are far more likely to die of it. This is terrible yet can be avoided in the majority of cases.”

As one woman with the disease points out: “They call it the silent killer but the symptoms shout out at you: you have to listen to your body and act.”

So what are the key signs to look out for? The most common ones include:

  • Persistent pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Increased abdominal size and persistent bloating
  • Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly

Women may also experience urinary symptoms such as needing to wee more urgently or often than usual, a change in bowel habits (e.g. diarrhoea), extreme fatigue and weight loss for no obvious reason.

Often women can mistake these ailments with other problems such as a food intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome or even put it down to old age.

The majority of ovarian cancer cases tend to affect women aged over 50 who have already gone through the menopause – although some types can present in younger women.

In the UK, one in every 50 women will develop the disease at some point in their life.

Other risk factors include a strong family history of the disease, smoking and being overweight. There is a slightly increased risk in women who have not had children or breastfed and among women of Ashkenazi Jewish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Dutch, Pakistani and Polish descent.

There is a suggestion that use of combined HRT for more than five years can increase risk – although this risk returns to normal once HRT has stopped.

Charity Target Ovarian Cancer also points to some other potential risk factors – although evidence for these is mixed. These include use of talcum powder in the genital area, IVF treatments and eating excess amounts of foods containing acrylamides, such as over-baked or over-fried bacon, chips and so on.

If you do have a strong family link to the disease, your doctor can carry out a blood test and scan, although these are not fail safe modes of detection. Research is ongoing to find more specific causes of the cancer and better ways to rout it out.

TV’s Dr Rob Hicks says: "In the UK, treatment is very good but, unfortunately, the disease is already in the body and developing before the diagnosis is made and treated.

“One of the challenges is that the possible symptoms are relatively non-specific and any women might put them down to lifestyle or getting older.”

He adds: “The key thing about the symptoms – like stomach pains, bloating, needing to pass urine more frequently - is the fact that they are usually persistent. It's not a case of occasional bloating or feeling full after eating - these symptoms are those that are there day in, day out.”

Reassuringly, in most cases these symptoms will not point to ovarian cancer. But the truth is that, in those cases when it is, early detection means a better chance of beating it.

For more information and advice see Ovarian Cancer Action Ovarian Cancer Action and Target Ovarian Cancer

This article was published on Mon 19 March 2012

Image © Eclipse Digital - Fotolia.com

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