Ovarian cancer is the sixth most common cause of cancer-related death among Australian women. Yet there is no early detection test. And if you thought a pap smear diagnoses ovarian cancer, think again. There has also been little improvement in survival rates over the past 30 years – of the almost 1,500 women diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year, only 43% will survive.
To add to the mystery, the symptoms of ovarian cancer can be vague and similar to other common conditions. It certainly looks like women are up against it, yet again. This is what is frustrating researchers, who are desperate to find better diagnosis methods and treatments for this insidious cancer.
What is ovarian cancer?
Cancer of the ovary starts when cells develop changes that lead to uncontrolled growth. The normal function of the ovary is to enable female reproduction by producing egg cells (ova) and female hormones such as oestrogen and progesterone.
Ovarian cancers are classified by the type of cells they originate from:
- Epithelial ovarian cancers develop from the cells that form the outer lining of the ovary or the inner lining of the uterine tubes. 90% of ovarian cancers are epithelial ovarian cancers.
- Stromal ovarian cancers develop from the hormone-producing cells of the ovaries.
- Germ cell ovarian cancers develop from the germ cells, also known as egg precursor cells, which are premature eggs waiting to mature one at a time each month.
Family history a risk factor
Around 15% of ovarian cancer cases in Australia are hereditary. This means they are associated with inheriting a change in an ovarian cancer susceptibility gene, such as BRCA1 or BRCA2, which also places women at an elevated risk of breast cancer.
Chances are, the first time you heard about this was in 2013 when Hollywood actor/director Angelina Jolie underwent a double mastectomy, followed by further surgery to remove her ovaries. Why? Due to an extensive family history of breast and ovarian cancer, plus having the BRCA1 gene mutation that dramatically raised her risk of cancer, Jolie made the decision to undergo these preventative operations. As much as Angelina Jolie’s decision was radical, it focused global media attention on cancers affecting women and this could only be a positive thing.
But apart from inheriting faulty genes, other factors that cause ovarian cancer are not completely understood. The most common ones we know are:
- Age: 85% of ovarian cancers happen to women over 50 years.
- Child-bearing history: Women who have not had children are slightly more likely to develop ovarian cancer than women who have.
- Hormonal factors: Using oestrogen-only hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can slightly increase the risk.
- Infertility and fertility treatments: Drugs used in fertility treatment may slightly increase the risk of developing ovarian cancer.
- Endometriosis: This is where the tissue that normally lines the womb builds up in other parts of the body.
- Diet and body weight: Being overweight and having an unhealthy diet may increase the risk of developing ovarian cancer.
- Family history and genetics: Women who have had breast cancer have an increased risk of ovarian cancer, as breast and ovarian cancer can be caused by the same faulty genes.
Know the symptoms but don’t make yourself sick with worry
Ovarian Cancer Australia tells us it can be difficult to diagnose ovarian cancer because the symptoms are ones that many women will have from time to time, and they are often symptoms of less serious and more common health problems. But we do know that ovarian cancer is NOT a silent disease. Women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer report four types of symptoms most frequently:
- Abdominal or pelvic pain.
- Increased abdominal size or persistent abdominal bloating.
- Needing to urinate often or urgently.
- Feeling full after eating a small amount.
If you have any of these symptoms, they are new for you, and you have experienced them multiple times during a 4-week period, go to your GP. The best thing you can do is to know your body and be aware of the symptoms of the disease. Then trust your instincts.
How is it treated?
Treatment for ovarian cancer usually involves a combination of surgery and chemotherapy. Less often, treatment may include radiology. The type of treatment women receive depends on the type and stage of their ovarian cancer and their general health.
Surgery is usually the first treatment for ovarian cancer. The goal of surgery is to confirm the diagnosis, establish where the cancer has spread in early cases, and remove as much of the tumour as possible in advanced cases. This allows other treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy to be more effective.
What’s with the White Shirts and Teal Ribbons?
Apart from being a classic item of clothing, the humble white shirt has the potential to save lives, thanks to the Witchery White Shirt Campaign and the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation (OCRF). Every year since 2001, fashion brand Witchery’s annual fundraising efforts have been an important component of supporting ovarian cancer research in Australia.
Witchery’s Australian and New Zealand retail stores sell a special collection of white shirts with 100% of gross proceeds going directly to desperately-needed ovarian cancer research. Last year, the money raised was a record $1.5 million – enough for the OCRF to appoint three full-time research scientists as well as buying vital medical equipment.
White Shirt Day – 1 May each year – will see celebrities and the rest of us donning white shirts for the ovarian cancer cause. There are heaps of fund raising activities you can tailor to suit your home, work, school, business or club in the weeks leading up to White Shirt Day. Go to www.ocrf.com.au for more details.
As for the teal ribbons, International Teal Ribbon Day falls on 22 February 2017 and you can buy a teal ribbon on the official Ovarian Cancer Australia website or from Coles supermarkets and selected chemists and pharmacies.
If you can’t organise any sort of fundraising activity, buy a white shirt from Witchery and you’ll be doing your bit to help researchers unlock the mystery of ovarian cancer to help women everywhere. White Shirt Day proves you don’t have to be a scientist to make a difference!