There’s no denying it. Ovarian cancer is a beast. Known as the ‘silent killer’, it’s the deadliest of all the gynaecological cancers. 

Thousands of Australian women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer every year. Over 1,000 women die each year in Australia.

Most are found to have it at an advanced stage, which is always bad news for cancer. That’s because the symptoms and signs are mild and can be easily mistaken for something else.

Worst of all, there’s no screening test.

illustration of a female in Teal t-shirt holding a picture of her ovaries in front of a teal ribbon
Illustration of female holding stylised ovaries in front of teal ribbon

What is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer occurs when abnormal cells form in the ovaries, which are a female’s  reproductive organs that produce eggs and hormones, including oestrogen and progesterone.

Ovarian cancer can affect one or both ovaries, the fallopian tubes, or supporting structures.

According to Cancer Australia, it makes up around 2.5 percent of all cancers affecting females each year.

Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month

Ovarian Cancer Australia is holding an awareness month this February. The goals are:

Educate. Only 31 per cent of Australians know that ovarian cancer has the poorest survival rate of any female cancer in Australia.

Advocate on behalf of those impacted by ovarian cancer for more research funding, better laws and policies, greater access to affordable treatment options and ultimately better outcomes for all those affected.

Elevate the voices of women impacted by this disease by sharing their stories, their real life experiences and getting these stories in front of as many eyes and ears as possible.

Check out the Ovarian Cancer website for more information on how to get involved.

The three types of ovarian cancer

There are three types of ovarian cancer. The most common is epithelial ovarian carcinomas. This type affects the lining of the outer layer of one or both ovaries. It represents around 80 to 90 percent of cases. Generally, these are detected when they are at an advanced stage.

The second type is germ cell cancer. Germ cells form the eggs. Fortunately, people with this type of ovarian cancer have a high survival rate after 5 years and it tends to affect younger women.

Stroma tumours are found in the structural tissues in the ovaries. These form about one percent of cases.

What are the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer?

Common symptoms include persistent bloating, abdominal or pelvic pain, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly, and changes in bathroom habits. Although these sound like everyday problems, if they are persistent, please speak to your doctor any time if you’re not sure.

(The UK’s Eve Appeal defines ‘persistent’ as three weeks or more, but they encourage all women to know their bodies. Again, early detection is better.)

How do we fight ovarian cancer?

Early detection is key in the fight against ovarian cancer. Regular check-ups and discussions with healthcare providers are essential, especially for women with a family history of the disease. Genetic counselling can also help identify those at higher risk and guide personalised prevention strategies.

The Pap smear, a routine test for cervical cancer, does not detect ovarian cancer. That means it’s crucial to be aware of your body and report any unusual symptoms quickly. Narara Valley Medical has female doctors and practice nurses who can give you fuss-free and comfortable consultations.

What causes ovarian cancer?

Researchers are continually working to understand the causes of ovarian cancer. Age, family history, and certain genetic mutations are known risk factors. 

What are the risk factors for ovarian cancer?

  • Age – ovarian cancer is most common in women over 50, women who have stopped having periods (have been through menopause), and the risk increases with age. Forty percent of cases are found in women over 70
  • Genes – up to 20 per cent of serious ovarian cancers (the most common subtype) are linked to an inherited faulty gene
  • Family history – having one or more close blood relatives (e.g. mother, sister) diagnosed with ovarian, breast, bowel or uterine cancers
  • Endometriosis 
  • Reproductive history – women who have not had children, who have had assisted reproduction (e.g. in-vitro fertilisation or IVF), or who have had children after the age of 35 may be slightly more at risk
  • Smoking or being overweight – linked to some types of ovarian cancer
  • Hormonal factors – such as early puberty or late menopause

How is ovarian cancer diagnosed?

Book an appointment with your GP. Your GP can make a physical examination and may organise a blood test. If ovarian cancer can’t be eliminated, a biopsy and further tests such as ultrasounds can be undertaken.

So how do I reduce the risk of ovarian cancer?

Taking a proactive step can really help reduce the risk.

  • Lifestyle factors like healthy eating food and getting enough fibre
  • Maintain a healthy body weight will help reduce your risk of developing ovarian cancer
  • Reduce or eliminating alcohol intake. Have a few alcohol-free days each week
  • Quit smoking
  • Regular exercise and good sleep
  • Get your other regular screening tests

Although there is no ovarian cancer screening test, you should still get the regular screening for the other types of cancer where they are available, including bowel (colorectal) and breast cancer. 

The helpful Jean Hailes website for women’s health has excellent information about various topics, including sleep and eating for gut health. There is also a downloadable poster with all the health checks women can get and when you should get them.

Resources for people with ovarian cancer and their families

The Australian Government has compiled  list of excellent resources to help people with ovarian cancer and their families get information, and advice.

A hopeful future

Professor Clare Scott has built a large research program and has achieved a number of ground breaking discoveries. Her targeted therapies have led to a number of women who have survived past the ten year mark.

Professor Scott believes the immune system is the key. “We have to assist our bodies to fight cancer in the very earliest stage,” she said in a Cancer Council video.

Targeted therapy drugs can target specific features of cancer cells to stop the cancer growing and spreading. These drugs are used to treat ovarian cancer that has come back or advanced ovarian cancer.

The good news is that things are heading in the right direction. Survival rates past the five-year mark have been increasing.

To learn more about ovarian cancer and targeted therapies, visit Cancer Council Australia

There are kind and knowledgable experts available to help at Ovarian Cancer australia.

Central Coast resources

View the local treatment centres

Fact sheet from Ovarian cancer Australia

See Central Coast Local Health District

The information in this article is general in nature and shouldn’t be considered as medical advice. For any medical advice, nothing beats a consultation with a good doctor.