March is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. Editorial assistant Helen has written a blog to help explain what some of the symptoms and risk factors of ovarian cancer are.

If you’re an avid EastEnders fan, you may be aware of a recent storyline in which a much-loved character, Jean Slater, is diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Stories like Jean’s that feature in the public eye can help raise awareness of cancers that are less frequently spoken about. And it’s particularly important to raise awareness of the symptoms and risk factors of ovarian cancer because this type of cancer is often diagnosed in the later, or more advanced stages of the disease. 

What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?
Ovarian cancer often causes symptoms that are similar to other, more common and less serious conditions. This can make it difficult to diagnose early, before the cancer has spread.

The main symptoms of ovarian cancer are:

  • a long-lasting bloated or swollen tummy
  • loss of appetite
  • feeling full quickly when you eat
  • pain in the lower tummy area or back
  • passing urine more often than usual
  • passing urine more urgently (feeling like you can’t hold on).

If you have any of these symptoms for no reason, or you get these symptoms regularly, especially more than 12 times a month, your GP should offer you cancer tests.

Other symptoms may include:

  • a change in your normal bowel habit (diarrhoea or constipation)
  • weight gain or weight loss
  • unexplained or extreme tiredness (fatigue)
  • vaginal bleeding after your menopause.

Image of a quote from our supporter, Diane

Risk factors and causes of ovarian cancer

We don’t know what causes ovarian cancer. But we do know some risk factors that may increase the chances of it developing. These can include:

  • Age - More than half of ovarian cancers occur in women over the age of 65.
  • Hormonal factors - Ovarian cancer is more common in women who have ovulated more times, i.e. women who started their periods young, or have never given birth.
  • Taking Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) - About 1% of cases of ovarian cancer may be linked to taking HRT after the menopause.
  • Medical conditions - Conditions such as breast cancer, endometriosis and diabetes may increase the risk of developing ovarian cancer.
  • Lifestyle factors - These include factors such as smoking or being overweight. We have more information about stopping smoking and maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Family history - Ovarian cancer can sometimes run in families.

It’s important to remember that having a risk factor does not mean you will definitely get cancer. Equally, if you don’t have any risk factors, this does not mean you will not get cancer.

Family history and ovarian cancer risk

If you have a family history of ovarian cancer, you may have a higher risk of developing it yourself.

A small number of cancers that start in the ovaries are linked to a gene mutation. If a family has a gene mutation linked to ovarian cancer, there may be a pattern of cancer in that family.

Several people in the family may be affected by ovarian cancer or related cancers, such as breast, bowel or womb cancer. They may also develop these types of cancer at an unusually young age.

We have more information for people who are worried about a family history of ovarian cancer in our booklet, Cancer genetics: How cancer sometimes runs in families, or in our leaflet Are you worried about ovarian cancer?

An image of a quote from our supporter, Clara

If you would like more information about ovarian cancer, you can order our booklet, Understanding cancer of the ovary, fallopian tube or peritoneum or you can read our information online, here.

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