Ovarian cancer: 10 things you need to know

Jane Murphy / 27 February 2018

Watch out for these warning signs and risk factors for ovarian cancer and take action.



1. Ovarian cancer is the deadliest gynaecological cancer and the sixth most common cancer among women. Eleven women die from the disease every day in the UK.

2. Two-thirds of women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed once the disease has already spread. The main reason? Both GPs and women themselves don't always recognise the early symptoms. For example, just one in five women can identify persistent bloating as a symptom of ovarian cancer, says new research from Target Ovarian Cancer (www.targetovariancancer.org.uk).

 In fact, women who experience bloating are far more likely to change their diet than consult their doctor. But the sooner cancer is diagnosed and treated, the greater the chances of survival.

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3.The four main warning signs to look out for include: bloating; needing to pee more often; feeling full-up all the time; and stomach pain. If you experience any one or more of these symptoms regularly, do consult your GP. Remember, these are all fairly common complaints – and unlikely to indicate anything very serious – but it's far, far better to be safe than sorry. Other symptoms of ovarian cancer may include vaginal bleeding, indigestion and feeling unusually tired.

4. Ovarian cancer is sometimes misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This is because some of the symptoms are very similar. It's important to bear in mind, however, that risk of IBS decreases with age – and the condition rarely presents for the first time in the over-50s. So older women with these symptoms should be given appropriate tests for ovarian cancer, starting with a simple blood test.

Eight in 10 cases are diagnosed in women over 50

5. Risk of ovarian cancer increases significantly with age. Around eight in 10 cases are diagnosed in women over 50.

6. Approximately 15 to 20 per cent of ovarian cancers are due to an inherited faulty gene – often the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, which also increases risk of breast cancer. If there are two or more cases or ovarian and/or breast cancer in your family, speak to your GP who may refer you to a genetic counsellor. US scientists have also recently identified a new gene mutation, passed from father to daughter, that may increase ovarian cancer risk.

7. Taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT) during the menopause can increase risk of ovarian cancer. But this relatively tiny increase needs to be weighed against the overall benefits of hormone treatment, so do talk through your options with your doctor. It's important to note that this risk reduces again five years after HRT is stopped

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8. Douching – flushing water into the vagina using a device – may also heighten risk. Women who douche regularly almost double their risk of developing ovarian cancer, according to a recent US study. It's thought douching can introduce harmful chemicals into the vagina, which disrupt hormone regulation. Using talcum powder between the legs has been linked to an increased risk, too.

9. Other risk factors include being overweight, smoking and having endometriosis or diabetes. Ovarian cancer has also been linked to an increased number of ovulatory cycles – so women who have never been pregnant and those who have breastfed for less than six months, or not at all, have a slightly heightened risk. This isn't something you can change, of course, but it's important to bear it in mind when assessing your overall risk.

10. Cervical screening does not test for ovarian cancer. In fact, there is currently no screening tool for the disease, which would catch cells before they mutate into cancerous ones. But big progress is being made. Scientists recently discovered that ovarian cancer derives from the fallopian tubes, rather than the ovaries.

Meanwhile, groundbreaking Oxford University research, funded by Ovarian Cancer Action (www.ovarian.org.uk), has identified a protein called SOX2, which is prevalent in women with ovarian cancer. It's hoped that further investigation of this, and other changes in the body that are happening in parallel, will lead to early detection and, ultimately, a nationwide screening programme.



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