Ovarian cancer affects your reproductive system. If you're worried about ovarian cancer, it's best to first understand the facts.
What are the ovaries?
The ovaries are part of the female reproductive organs. They are two small oval-shaped organs on each side of your womb in the lower abdomen (pelvis). Each month, in a woman who is fertile, an egg is made in one of the ovaries. The egg leaves the ovary and passes down a tube called the fallopian tube to the womb.
If the egg is not fertilised by the sperm, it leaves the womb with the lining of the womb. This happens as part of a monthly cycle known as a period (menstruation). The ovaries also make the female sex hormones, oestrogen and progesterone.
What is ovarian cancer?
Cancer of the ovary is when the normal cells in the ovary change and grow to form a malignant tumour or cancer. It can also be called ovarian cancer. Because the ovaries are deep in the pelvis, the tumour as it gets bigger may affect nearby organs.
This can include the bladder or the bowel. When this happens, the tumour may affect how theses organs normally work. This in turn can lead to symptoms.
Symptoms of ovarian cancer
Most women will not notice any symptoms as it can take a long time for symptoms to occur. When symptoms do appear, they can be mild, vague or do not go away (persistent). They can include:
- Bloated feeling
- Persistent swollen abdomen
- Pain or dragging sensation in your lower abdomen or side
- Vague indigestion or nausea
- Poor appetite and feeling full quickly
- Changes in your bowel or bladder habits; for example, constipation or needing to pass water urgently
- Abnormal vaginal discharge or bleeding (rare)
Even though these symptoms can be caused by complaints other than cancer, do have them checked by your doctor.
Diagnosis of Ovarian Cancer
Visit your family doctor (GP) if you are worried about any symptoms. Your GP will examine you first. He or she will do an internal exam by placing a gloved finger into your vagina to feel for any lumps or swelling. If your doctor has concerns about you, he or she will refer you to a hospital. There, you will see a specialist who may arrange more tests, such as the following:
- Ultrasound of abdomen
- Transvaginal ultrasound
- Special blood test
Ultrasound of abdomen: An ultrasound uses sound waves to build up a picture of the tissues inside your body. A gel is spread over the area to be scanned first. A probe that makes sound waves is then used to take the scan. The sound waves are converted into a picture by a computer and can show up any abnormal tissues.
Transvaginal ultrasound: This is a special type of ultrasound. A small metal device called a probe is put into your vagina first. It looks like a microphone and is covered with a gel. By doing the test in this way, clear pictures of your womb and ovaries can be seen. This test is not painful but may be a little uncomfortable.
Laparoscopy: This is a small operation done in theatre under general anaesthetic. Your doctor will make a small cut in your lower abdomen near your belly button. He or she will then put a thin mini-telescope called a laparoscope into the wound. By looking through the laparoscope, your doctor can see your ovaries and take a small sample of tissue (biopsy) to be examined.
Special blood test: A blood test called CA125 is usually done. CA125 is a chemical found in blood that is sometimes released from ovarian cancer cells. It is known as a tumour marker for ovarian cancer. Not all women with ovarian cancer will have a raised CA125.
These may include:
- CT scan
- PET scan
- MRI scan
These scans can help to stage the cancer. This means finding out the size of the cancer and if it has spread anywhere else. This can help your doctor to decide on the right treatment for you.