THE NOT-SO SILENT KILLER
What every woman needs to know about ovarian cancer.
By Jane Hill
“One woman dies of ovarian cancer in Australia every eight hours!”
We owe it to ourselves to know about ovarian cancer. Maybe then, it wouldn’t have the lowest survival rate of any women’s cancer, and a survival rate well below the average for all cancers. Maybe then, we would have more women with early stage diagnoses rather than at advanced stages when it’s often too late. Maybe then, we would stop calling it the silent killer because there is something we can do to protect ourselves.
Ovarian Cancer Australia (OCA) knows all too well that there needs to be more awareness of this disease. As such, they have launched Know Ovarian Cancer, a new national awareness initiative to help reduce the burden of this disease. This means recognising the signs and symptoms, knowing your family history, and knowing how you can help women and their families living with ovarian cancer.
Ovarian cancer is a silent killer: FALSE
Two-thirds of Australians do not know that ovarian cancer has symptoms. It has often been referred to as a ‘silent killer’ but we know now that it’s not. 93 per cent of women with ovarian cancer experience the known symptoms of the disease which include:
- Increased abdominal size or persistent abdominal bloating
- The need to urinate often or urgently
- Feeling full after eating a small amount
Ovarian cancer is commonly misdiagnosed due to its vague symptoms, often attributed to menopause or digestive issues, and many women delay seeking medical advice because of this.
Women should consult their GP if these symptoms are new, they experience one or more of them persistently over a four-week period and particularly if experienced with fatigue, unusual weight loss or gain, or a change in bowel habits.
Any woman can get ovarian cancer: TRUE
Although ovarian cancer is most common in women over 50 who have been through menopause, women of any age can develop the disease.
Some risk factors include having a history of endometriosis, having never used oral contraceptives, smoking or being overweight, and experiencing early puberty or late menopause.
Most women with ovarian cancer will survive: FALSE
Each year, approximately 1500 Australian women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer and around 1000 will die within five years of diagnosis. To put this in perspective, one woman dies of ovarian cancer in Australia every eight hours! If diagnosed in its early stages, women have an 80 per cent chance of being alive and well after five years. Then why does it have the lowest survival rate of any women’s cancer? Because 75 per cent of women are diagnosed at an advanced stage, where the cancer has spread and it is difficult to treat. We know our own bodies and if you feel something is wrong, don’t ignore it.
A pap smear will detect ovarian cancer: FALSE
50 per cent of Australians believe that ovarian cancer can be detected by a pap smear. This is not the case. There is currently no early detection test for ovarian cancer so the best way of detecting the disease is to know the signs and symptoms.
The HPV vaccine will protect against ovarian cancer: FALSE
The HPV vaccine protects against several strains of the Human Papilloma Virus which can cause cervical cancer, not ovarian cancer.
There is a link between ovarian cancer and breast cancer: TRUE
Women who have inherited either or both of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations are more likely to develop both ovarian cancer and/or breast cancer. In the general population, a woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer is around one per cent. Inheriting the BRCA1 mutation increases this risk to 59 per cent, while the BRCA2 mutation raises the risk to a 17 per cent chance of developing ovarian cancer.
The BRCA gene mutations that increase the risk of developing ovarian cancer can only be inherited from your mother: FALSE
Faulty BRCA genes can be inherited from either parent and there is a 50 per cent chance that an individual with a BRCA mutation will pass this gene fault onto each of their children. Inheriting either or both of the BRCA gene mutations does not mean that a woman will develop ovarian cancer but it does mean that she should be extra vigilant in monitoring potential symptoms.
If you have a family history of ovarian and/or breast cancer, regardless of whether or not you have the BRCA gene mutation or simply don’t know, it is important that you discuss your family history with your GP.
A woman is considered to have a family history of ovarian cancer if she has one or more of the following:
- A first-degree relative diagnosed with breast cancer at an age younger than 50 years
- A first-degree relative diagnosed with ovarian cancer at any age
- A combination of two or more first-degree relatives with breast or ovarian cancer
- A male first-degree relative diagnosed with breast cancer at any age
OCA relies on its fundraising community to continue to deliver awareness, support, advocacy and research programs. Host an Afternoon Teal fundraiser (teal being the international colour for ovarian cancer) or donate to OCA. For more information about ovarian cancer, to find out how you can help or to donate, visit: www.ovariancancer.net.au
This article is written by Jane Hill, CEO of Ovarian Cancer Australia (OCA). OCA is an independent national organisation with programs across advocacy, awareness, research, and support. OCA is the only organisation in Australia that provides direct support to those living with ovarian cancer – that is, the women experiencing the disease as well as their loved ones – through support groups, phone support, online resources and more.