Getting smart about ovarian cancer

By: Alison Dunn Oct 25, 2010

What you don't know about ovarian cancer could put your health at serious risk

When it comes to women's cancers, ovarian cancer is the most serious of all the gynecological cancers – but the symptoms are vague, and many women aren't even aware they have it until it's too late.

According to Ovarian Cancer Canada, a national organization that supports women with ovarian cancer, more than 2,500 Canadian women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year, and 1,700 succumb to the disease. Those are some pretty scary statistics, and what's worse is that there is currently no screening test to detect ovarian cancer.

The good news is that when it is detected and caught early, the survival rate is 90 per cent. That's reason enough to stay on top of your gynecological health and catch the signs of ovarian cancer before it's too late.

Is it ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer starts in the cells of the ovary or ovaries, those two small, oval-shaped organs that lie deep in the pelvis on either side of the uterus (womb), close to the end of the Fallopian tubes. The Canadian Cancer Society says there are three main types of ovarian cancer. For each type, the cancer starts in different types of cell found in the ovaries. They are:

  • Epithelial cell cancer that starts in the cells that cover the outer surface of the ovary.
  • Germ cell tumours that start in the egg cells within the ovary and generally occur in younger women. Germ cell cancer can even develop in children.
  • Stromal tumours start in the connective tissue cells that hold the ovary together.

The biggest problem with diagnosing ovarian cancer is that there is no one specific symptom. The symptoms are generally vague, and you can easily mistake their causes. Also, just because you have the symptoms, it does not mean you have ovarian cancer.

The most common symptoms include:

  • Swelling or bloating of the abdomen
  • Pelvic discomfort or heaviness
  • Back or abdominal pain
  • Fatigue
  • Gas, nausea, indigestion
  • Change in bowel habits
  • Emptying your bladder frequently
  • Menstrual irregularities
  • Weight loss or weight gain

You may also experience a mass, or "lump" in your pelvis you can feel, the inability to eat normally, pain with intercourse or vaginal bleeding. The key is to see your doctor if any of these symptoms last for more than three weeks.

The hereditary link

Studies have also found that 10 per cent of ovarian cancers are hereditary. In those cases, the two breast cancer genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2) have been involved in most cases. A woman who is a carrier of a BRCA1 or a BRCA2 gene mutation has an increased chance of developing ovarian cancer compared with a woman in the general population.

If you do have a family history of ovarian cancer, it's important to bring it to the attention of your family doctor. You can then undergo genetic counseling to help you understand the risks and the benefits of genetic testing for the disease.

A journalist with more than 10 years experience, Alison’s work has appeared in a number of top Canadian publications, including glow, Oxygen, Canadian Running and more. She is the former editor of a number of well-respected Canadian and American trade journals and recipient of a Kenneth R. Wilson Gold Award of Excellence in feature article writing. She is a part-time faculty member at Sheridan College’s journalism department, as well as an avid runner and fitness enthusiast.