Ovarian cancer - signs and symptoms to watch for

How to recognise the symptoms of ovarian cancerPic: Getty

Ovarian cancer is estimated to affect more than 7,000 women in the UK each year. It is most common amongst post-menopausal women, but can strike at any age, and since the symptoms can be mistaken for those of other conditions, it often goes unnoticed in the early stages.

As with any cancer, early diagnosis can make a big difference to the success of treatment, so being able to recognise the signs is essential.

The three most prominent and common symptoms of ovarian cancer are increased abdominal size and persistent bloating, persistent pelvic and abdominal pain, and difficulty eating and feeling full quickly, or feeling nauseous.

Because each of these symptoms can also be associated with less serious conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome of pre-menstrual syndrome, they are often dismissed by sufferers in the early stages of cancer, but should you experience these symptoms regularly or for a prolonged period of time, it is wise to seek advice from your GP.

Needing to urinate more often, back pain, changes in your bowel habits or prolonged feelings of fatigue are other symptoms to watch for should you be suffering any of the above.

The charity Ovarian Cancer Action advises keeping a symptom diary, keeping a note of how many of the symptoms you have and for how long.

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

According to the NHS, around one in ten ovarian cancers are thought to be caused by a faulty gene - the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene - so if a close female relative has been diagnosed you may also be at greater risk of developing the condition. Relatives who have suffered from breast cancer can also be an indicator.

Age is a major risk factor, with more than eight out of ten cases occurring in women over the age of 50. 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).

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.

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.

If you are worried that you may have the symptoms or believe you could be at an increased risk of developing the disease, do visit your GP. Cancer Research, Ovarian Cancer Action and Target Ovarian Cancer are other useful resources, providing advice and support for those living with ovarian cancer.

Have you been diagnosed with ovarian cancer? What advice would you give to others affected by the disease? Leave your comments below...