Ovarian cancer: Would you recognise the signs?

Ovarian cancer affects around 6,500 women in the UK each year and is the fifth most common cancer among women - so it's an important one to be aware of.

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Symptoms and diagnosis
The initial signs of ovarian cancer can be difficult to recognise because they can resemble those of other, more common conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS).

The key symptoms are persistent pain in the pelvis and abdomen, persistent abdominal bloating (rather than bloating that comes and goes) and difficulty eating or feeling full quickly.

If you experience these symptoms regularly then it is best to talk to your GP - and never be afraid to go back to them again (and again if necessary) or seek a second opinion.

Your GP will either carry out an inspection his/herself or refer you to a gynaecologist or gynaecological oncologist at the hospital.

Blood tests and an ultrasound examination may also be necessary.

Surgery and chemotherapy are the most common treatments for ovarian cancer - and nearly all women who suffer from it have surgery of one form or another.

Patients will be cared for by a team of specialists, and their treatment will be tailored to the advancement of their case and their life situation.

Advanced cases may not be curable, but instead patients will undergo repeated treatments to shrink the size of their tumours and to reduce their pain.

Several causes and risk factors have been identified for ovarian cancer.

Family history is a big risk factor, especially if female relatives were diagnosed before they were 50. Relatives who have suffered from breast cancer can also be an indicator.

Age is a major risk factor, with most cases affecting women over the age of 65. It is rare for women under 40 to suffer from ovarian cancer.

Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) has been shown to be a minor risk factor, although the risk returns to normal within five years of HRT ceasing.

Endometriosis has also been shown to increase the risk of developing ovarian cancer - as have long periods of fertility (ie. not being on the pill).

Because risk increases each time a woman ovulates, as the walls of the ovaries are damaged by eggs leaving, taking the contraceptive pill (which prevents ovulation) has been shown to lower the risk.

Other studies have shown that lifestyle factors, in particular obesity, can be a risk, so it's wise to maintain a healthy weight, eat well (plenty of fruit and vegetables), give up smoking and limit your alcohol consumption.

Check out the Macmillan cancer support, Cancer Research UK or NHS Choices website for additional information.