Everything you need to know about living well with ovarian cancer
You may be wondering, what is ovarian cancer? Healthcare Pro are here to help explain this, as well as explore ovarian cancer symptoms, treatments for ovarian cancer, what causes ovarian cancer, and types of ovarian cancer. We hope you find this guide useful, and we hope it raises awareness of the signs of ovarian cancer to look out for.
Ovarian cancer develops in the female ovary or ovaries, which is part of the reproductive system. Many women are unaware of the symptoms of ovarian cancer, which are not always obvious until the cancer has spread.
Ovarian cancer causes the death of one woman every 2 hours in the UK and is the 4th most common cancer in women. It is more common in White women than Black or Asian women. The risk of developing ovarian cancer increases with age, with women aged 50+ being at a higher risk. Scientists believe genetics may play a part in a woman’s ovarian cancer risk, as women who have family members with ovarian cancer or breast cancer are more likely to develop the disease. There are ovarian cancer treatments available which can control the disease or cure it completely.
To find out more about ovarian cancer, visit the NHS website.
Cancer develops when the body’s cells duplicate abnormally to create tumours, which disrupt how the body functions. Some tumours are benign (non-cancerous) but cancerous tumours grow and may spread to other parts of the body, where they create more tumours. Cancer Research UK provides a clear explanation of what causes cancer.
Ovarian cancer occurs when cells in the ovaries multiply and create a tumour or multiple tumours. Some people notice symptoms of ovarian cancer at an early stage and seek treatment. However, some people are unaware of ovarian cancer symptoms until later, which gives more time for the cancer to spread to other parts of the body such as the fallopian tubes, womb, cervix, bladder and bowel. In late stage ovarian cancer, cancer has spread to parts of the body that are not close to the original source, i.e. it may have spread to the liver, lungs, spleen, etc.
The causes of ovarian cancer are not known but some women are at an increased risk of developing it and these factors may increase the risk of ovarian cancer:
• Age – more common in older women
• Having endometriosis
• Taking HRT – some research has suggested this increases the risk very marginally
• Being overweight or living with obesity
Ovarian cancer occurs in stages, according to how severe it is, if the cancerous cells have spread and how much they have spread.
The types of ovarian cancer include:
To understand more about the specific types of ovarian cancer, you may wish to visit the Cancer Research UK website.
Ovarian cancer symptoms can sometimes be dismissed as being a result of other, minor conditions. Only 1 in 5 women in the UK are able to name the symptoms of ovarian cancer, and charities are working hard to raise awareness of the condition and its symptoms, to increase the rates of early detection. The earlier ovarian cancer is detected, the better the chances of treating it and curing it.
Ovarian cancer symptoms include:
• Bloated tummy that does not come and go
• Feeling ‘full’ or having less appetite
• Pains in the tummy or pelvis
• Needing to wee more urgently
• Needing to wee more frequently
• Unusual bleeding from the vagina, i.e. spotting in between periods, heavier than normal periods, or bleeding after menopause
• Feeling tired/fatigued
• Losing weight
• Unexplained/unusual diarrhoea or constipation
Every woman with ovarian cancer will experience ovarian cancer symptoms differently, and this list is not exhaustive but indicates the most commonly reported symptoms. Many of these are easy to pass off as ‘getting older’ or as related to common conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome. If you are having symptoms like these persistently or frequently, you should visit your GP for a diagnosis. Having some or all of these symptoms does not mean you have ovarian cancer, but it is one possibility that needs to be investigated.
If you visit your GP with symptoms of ovarian cancer, your GP is likely to examine your tummy and may carry out an internal exam, ask about family history of cancers, and book you in for a blood test. A full blood screening will highlight if there are any underlying conditions causing the symptoms, and a specific test for a protein called CA 125, a cancer antigen, will indicate if there is a likelihood that symptoms are caused by ovarian cancer. You may also be referred for an ultrasound scan and to a gynaecologist.
If you think you have symptoms of ovarian cancer, you may wish to read more about diagnosis on the Ovarian Cancer Action website.
Receiving a diagnosis of ovarian cancer can cause much anxiety and fear for the person diagnosed and their family. Ovarian cancer treatments may be difficult and are likely to have an impact on your life. Here, we look at ways that daily life is affected by ovarian cancer, such as what ovarian cancer treatment may involve, and where you can get ovarian cancer support.
Ovarian cancer symptoms may cause some pain, discomfort and fatigue, and may affect urination and bowel movements. Symptoms can also cause feelings of low mood or depression.
Some women find that their sex life and desire for sex changes whilst they have ovarian cancer, or during/after treatment for ovarian cancer, and this is perfectly normal. The emotional impact of ovarian cancer is huge, and it may change the way a woman feels about herself and, to some extent, her partner. Relationships with partners can become strained or may become stronger – every situation is different. There is ovarian cancer help and support out there for women who are finding the disease is affecting their personal relationships. Some women find it difficult to talk about their experiences and feelings when they are living with ovarian cancer, whereas others are able to share and be open about it. Some women find their family and friends are a great support, whilst others may feel their loved ones do not know what to say or shy away from the subject. Read more about how ovarian cancer affects relationships with family, friends and partners.
Women who have advanced ovarian cancer may experience pain which can be difficult to live with. There are many ways to help relieve this pain, and it’s important to report any pain to your cancer care team. Some women also find that daily living aids can help them to stay independent, if pain is making day-to-day activities difficult.
The emotions and feelings that occur after an ovarian cancer diagnosis and whilst living with ovarian cancer can be difficult to cope with. Treatment for ovarian cancer can be long and challenging. Some women may lose their hair and have issues with their body image. Read more information on how to cope with ovarian cancer.
It is normal to worry about the future if you have been given an ovarian cancer diagnosis. Depending on the stage at which your cancer is at, and how well treatment works, you may have real fears about whether or not you will survive ovarian cancer. Ovarian cancer survival has doubled in the UK in the last few decades, and 35% of women survive ovarian cancer for 10 years or more. It may help to read stories of people who are surviving ovarian cancer, and those who are in remission. Some women may be told that their ovarian cancer is no longer treatable and may be advised they are approaching the end of life. If this is the case for you or someone you know, you may wish to read this End of Life Guide from Macmillan Cancer Support.
Ovarian cancer is treatable in many cases. The ovarian cancer treatments available to each woman will depend upon the type of ovarian cancer she has, and what grade and stage it is at. Treatment will usually involve lots of different medical professionals, including an oncologist, a clinical nurse specialist and a chemotherapy nurse.
The usual course of treatment may include surgery and chemotherapy. If the cancer is caught at a really early stage, which is rarely the case, sometimes surgery is required but not chemotherapy. Most people will have chemotherapy and some women will need to have it before their surgery, to reduce the size of tumours in order to make surgery easier, safer or more successful. Here we explain a little more about each type of ovarian cancer treatment and how they work together.
Surgery is usually required to remove the ovaries, fallopian tubes, womb and cervix, or other areas that may be affected by cancerous cells. Surgery can be stressful and will require many weeks of recovery time. Pain can be managed with medication but, as you can imagine, it can be a very emotional time.
This type of surgery means that a woman is unable to conceive, so for younger women who were planning or considering having children or more children, this can feel like a great loss. For older women, even those who have been through menopause, there can be a sense of loss and change. For women who have not had menopause, the surgery will push the body into an immediate menopause with a variety of symptoms, which can make the operation and recovery even harder. You may be able to take hormone replacement therapy to ease the transition. Read more about surgery for ovarian cancer.
Surgery is usually followed up with chemotherapy. This is a special course of medication designed to kill cancer cells that are still in the body, delivered through a drip at a hospital. It can take most of a day to receive a course of chemotherapy and the course is repeated up to six times with a break of around three weeks each time.
Chemotherapy side effects can be difficult to manage and may include fatigue, hair loss, sickness or nausea and loss of appetite. However, chemotherapy is often a very effective treatment for ovarian cancer.
For more information on ovarian cancer treatments, visit the NHS website.
Daily living aids are products designed to help people experiencing health conditions carry out their usual day-to-day tasks with greater ease. Some daily living aids may be particularly useful if you are recovering from ovarian cancer treatment, after having surgery or chemotherapy for example. Here, we list a selection of daily living aids that may help you with ovarian cancer symptoms or treatment side effects.
If you are struggling with fatigue or pain, there are a number of daily living aids which can help make you more comfortable.
If you are finding mobility difficult, perhaps due to fatigue or pain, or whilst recovering from surgery, you may find that mobility aids, such as a rollator, assist you in getting around more easily and enabling you to rest when required.
PLEASE NOTE: our Expert Advice Service can only give advice about equipment and products which may help you to live more independently. They cannot give any advice on medications or treatments for symptoms of this condition.
It’s important to eat well if you have ovarian cancer. There is no specific ovarian cancer diet to follow, but a balanced diet with the right nutrients is important for your strength and recovery. Some people may find that they have little appetite because of their ovarian cancer symptoms or the side effects from surgery or chemotherapy. This is normal but it may be worth talking to your nurse specialist for advice. For more cancer diet advice, visit Cancer Research UK’s website.
Some women choose to take vitamin and mineral supplements for ovarian cancer, but there is often little evidence to show that these make a difference to symptoms, recovery or progression of cancer. However, some people do report that certain ovarian cancer supplements make them feel better. Always speak to your nurse specialist or oncologist before taking supplements of any sort to ensure they will not interfere with your treatments for ovarian cancer.
Regular exercise often helps reduce our risk of developing certain healthcare conditions and some studies have found that women who exercised regularly had less risk of developing ovarian cancer. Women with an ovarian cancer diagnosis may benefit from regular, gentle exercise to help boost mood and help the body recover after ovarian cancer treatment. Target Ovarian Cancer provides lots of advice about looking after yourself if you have ovarian cancer, including information on ovarian cancer exercise and ovarian cancer diet.
Many women with an ovarian cancer diagnosis continue to work if they did so before their diagnosis and if they wish to do so or need to do so financially. Many will need time off for ovarian cancer treatments and recovery from surgery often takes up to three months. Some people find a phased return to work is the best way for them to get back to work gradually. Fatigue is a big symptom of cancer and also of chemotherapy and surgery treatments for ovarian cancer. Find out more about coping with cancer fatigue.
We hope this ovarian cancer explanation has been useful to you, whether you are living with ovarian cancer yourself, think you have ovarian cancer symptoms, or know somebody who has been given an ovarian cancer diagnosis. The symptoms of ovarian cancer are not widely known, and we hope this guide helps raise more awareness of a fairly silent condition that lots of people do not know much about. Here, we point you to ovarian cancer support groups and websites that provide further information and advice.
Cancer Research UK – the leading cancer charity, providing information and advice about all types of cancer, treatments and research projects, as well as a nurse-run helpline
Macmillan Cancer Support – charity supporting people with all types of cancer and their families, with online information and telephone helpline support regarding all aspects of living with cancer, as well as local support groups and ‘Macmillan nurses’ working in the NHS
Marie Curie – a UK charity supporting people with terminal illness and end of life care, providing lots of practical advice and tips on preparing for end of life, living with a terminal illness and a free support helpline
NHS – source of official medical advice and information about ovarian cancer, symptoms, treatments and living with the condition
Ovacome – a charity providing lots of online information and advice about living with ovarian cancer, as well as a support line, local support groups and a forum
Ovarian Cancer Action – a research charity providing information about ovarian cancer, including information on ovarian cancer symptoms, treatments and risks
Target Ovarian Cancer – charity with lots of online information and advice about living with ovarian cancer, a nurse-led support helpline and peer-to-peer support options
World Cancer Research Fund – information about cancer, living with the disease, and ways to live a healthy lifestyle to help prevent cancer
Although we always try to explain things as simply and as clearly as possible, sometimes it’s necessary to use the correct medical terminology. Medical terms are often known for being tricky to pronounce and if you’re not an expert in the subject, they can also be a little difficult to understand. Below, we’ve put together a list of terms used on this page along with a brief explanation of what they mean to help make your understanding of ovarian cancer as straightforward as possible.
– produced in the body to stimulate immunity against an invading disease such as cancer; finding antigens in the blood suggests presence of a disease
– related to a tumour, this means it is not cancerous and cannot spread, although a benign tumour can still cause damage within the body
– a type of protein produced in the body when a person has ovarian cancer
– a disease of the body caused by abnormal cell growth which has potential to grow and spread around the body, interfering with normal bodily function and causing ill health and possibly early death
– the building blocks of the body, involved in all biological aspects of life and keeping the human body functional
– medication treatment for cancer aiming to stop cancer cells developing and spreading, which is widely used but has many side effects such as fatigue, hair loss and sickness
– a condition where the endometrium, a tissue that lines the womb, grows on the ovaries, bowel and pelvis, causing menstruation issues, fertility issues, pain and discomfort
– cells that make up tissue which line certain organs or areas of the body i.e. in epithelial ovarian cancer, the cancerous cells are in this tissue
– in the human body, these tubes carry eggs from the ovaries to the uterus
– a doctor specialising in treating conditions affecting female reproductive organs
– hormone replacement therapy, used to reduce menopausal symptoms, made up of synthetic hormones
Irritable bowel syndrome
– known as IBS, this condition affects the digestive system and may cause daily stomach problems such as constipation, diarrhoea and bloating
– a part of ageing that all women go through, usually between 45-55 years, where oestrogen levels produced naturally by the body decline, resulting in periods stopping and being no longer able to have children
– part of the female reproductive system, usually consisting of two ovaries, which produce eggs that may become fertilised by sperm to make a baby
– related to the peritoneum, which is a layer of tissue that covers all the organs within the abdomen
– a type of tumour made of different types of bodily tissue, including hair, muscle and bone
– abnormal cell growth in the body which can be cancerous or benign, or pre-cancerous with potential to spread
– a diagnostic tool for detecting a number of health conditions including cancer, which involves taking a picture inside the body to explore potential problems