Ovarian cancer - everything you need to know

24th February 2022

Ovarian cancer is the 8th most common and 8th most deadly type of cancer in women around the world. Anyone with ovaries can get ovarian cancer, but the symptoms can be hard to tell apart from other common health conditions. What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer? What causes it? How is it diagnosed? What are your treatment options? Can you cure ovarian cancer? And what are we doing to start new cancer cures for ovarian cancer?

What is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer is a type of cancer that happens when cells in or around the ovaries and fallopian tubes start to grow out of control. The ovaries are two small organs in the lower abdomen that store the eggs needed to make babies. Over 90% of cases are epithelial ovarian cancer, which starts in cells covering the ovaries, but there are many other, less common types of ovarian cancer.

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What causes ovarian cancer?

Anyone with ovaries can be diagnosed with ovarian cancer. As with all cancers, your risk of developing ovarian cancer increases with age, and more than half of cases in the UK occur in people over the age of 65. You also have a higher chance of developing ovarian cancer if you have ovulated more – this means that if you started menstruating at an early age or started your menopause late, your risk may be higher.

Some people have a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer because they have inherited a faulty gene. People with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation are at higher risk of developing many types of cancer because BRCA1 and BRCA2 are involved in the repair of damaged DNA.

Other risk factors include:

  • A previous diagnosis of breast or bowel cancer
  • Previous treatment with radiotherapy
  • Endometriosis
  • Diabetes
  • Taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
  • Never having used hormonal contraceptives
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Smoking

Long-term use of hormonal contraceptives has been shown to decrease your risk of developing ovarian cancer, and this is believed to have contributed to the decrease in ovarian cancer cases seen in many countries where hormonal contraceptives are used at high rates and from an earlier age. This may also be due to reduced use of HRT.

Symptoms of ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer is much easier to treat if caught early, however many people are diagnosed after the cancer has spread to other areas. The most common symptoms of ovarian cancer can be hard to tell apart from other common health issues, such as gastrointestinal issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). If you frequently experience any of these symptoms (more than 12 times in a month), you should speak to your GP:

  • Feeling bloated/swollen tummy
  • Pain or tenderness in abdomen or pelvis that doesn’t go away
  • No appetite or feeling full quickly after eating
  • Urgent need to pee or peeing more often

Other symptoms can include:

  • Indigestion
  • Changes to bowel habits
  • Back pain
  • Feeling tired all the time
  • Losing weight unintentionally
  • Bleeding from the vagina after menopause

If you experience any of these symptoms, or for longer than you usually might, consider speaking to your GP.

Find out how our Curestarters helped develop this lifesaving drug for ovarian cancer

How is ovarian cancer treated?

Treatments for ovarian cancer depend on the location of the cancer, how developed it is, and if/how far it has spread. Surgery is most successful when ovarian cancer is caught earlier, and chemotherapies like carboplatin after often offered alongside surgery, for example to help shrink the tumour beforehand. Radiotherapy may be offered if the cancer is more advanced but can also be used to alleviate symptoms such as pain and bleeding.

Recent research has discovered several more targeted treatment options, although availability and eligibility will depend on your local health provider. Avastin (Bevacizumab) and similar drugs called anti-angiogenics work by stopping new blood vessels growing to support ovarian tumours, which can slow their development. PARP inhibitors, such as olaparib, are another recent revelation in targeted therapy. They work by stopping damaged cancer cells from repairing themselves, causing them to die.

Further reading

Cancer explained

What is olaparib?

Olaparib is the first in a new type of targeted cancer drug called a PARP inhibitor. The drug was developed thanks to pioneering research made possible by people just like you.

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