Ovarian cancer: How to spot the signs and detect it early


Ovarian cancer is far too often diagnosed late due to its ‘silent’ symptoms. This World Ovarian Cancer Day, we explore ways to prevent ovarian cancer and detect it early


Ovarian cancer impacts the small, oval-shaped glands that are located on either side of the uterus, and, sadly, due to its typically vague symptoms, it can be difficult to diagnose in its early stages.

Affecting 7,400 Brits every year – that’s around 20 people per day – it makes knowing the signs and symptoms that much more important.

The good news is that ovarian cancer is 90% curable if detected early, according to the Robin Cancer Trust. So, if yourself or a loved one notice a sudden change in their body, it’s really important to book a GP appointment.

Here, we explore who’s most at risk of ovarian cancer, the signs and symptoms to look out for and what to expect if you undergo a course of treatment.

Who is at risk of ovarian cancer?

Anyone with ovaries can get ovarian cancer, but there are a few factors as to why a person might develop ovarian cancer.

Dr Rosie Godeseth, Vitality’s Associate Medical Director, explains: “There are known risk factors we cannot change, including our genetics and our age.”

The risk of ovarian cancer increases in people over the age of 45; though, the most at-risk age group are those between 75 and 79, and more than 50 in 100 cases are in those over 65 years of age.

Another group of ovarian cancer patients (around 20%) are caused by inherited genes – known as BRCA genes – which can also increase the risk of a breast cancer diagnosis.

Naturally, therefore, those who have received a breast cancer diagnosis, particularly at a young age, are at an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.

Meanwhile, other diseases, such as endometriosis and diabetes, also increase the risk of ovarian cancer. Excessive body weight is linked to an ovarian cancer diagnosis as well.

There are things we can do to help prevent it, however. “Smoking and maintaining a healthy weight can reduce the risk of developing ovarian cancer,” notes Godeseth.

Knowing the signs and symptoms

When ovarian cancer first develops, it might not cause any noticeable signs and symptoms. But remember, it is you that knows your body, and if something doesn’t feel quite right speak to your doctor.

Some of the common signs and symptoms, Godeseth says, can include:

  • Feeling constantly bloated
  • Having a swollen tummy
  • Experiencing discomfort in your tummy or pelvic area
  • Feeling full quickly when eating or having trouble eating your usual amount
  • Needing to urinate more often than normal or feeling like you always need to urinate

Should these symptoms persist or appear more often or severe than normal, it is important to seek medical help as soon as possible. More so if you’re aged over 50 and have a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer.

It’s important to note that there are a few lesser common signs and symptoms to be aware of, including lower back pain, unexpected weight loss, bleeding after menopause or changes to your menstrual cycle, whether that’s irregular bleeding or heavier bleeding than normal.

What types of treatment are available?

According to the NHS, ovarian cancer treatment will depend on:

  • The size and type of ovarian cancer
  • Where it is
  • If it has spread and, if so, where to
  • Your general health

There are two main types of ovarian cancer treatment: chemotherapy and surgery. Others include more targeted medications and hormone therapies.

But before entering into any course of treatment, a specialist care team need to talk you through your options and create a plan that’s right for you, while informing you about what to expect and any potential side effects.

The effects of treatment can vary from person to person, so don’t wait until your next check-up to seek advice about any symptoms or side effects that you’re worried about.

How can I support a loved one through ovarian cancer?

A cancer diagnosis can impact the people close to us in a variety of ways, so knowing how to best support them seems bewildering. Just remember there are plenty of ways to get support.

Charities, like Macmillan and Cancer Research UK, provide support lines, forums and advice for people going through a cancer diagnosis.

If times are tough and you feel you are struggling with supporting a partner, friend or family member with cancer, always remember that you can also speak to your GP.

If, meanwhile, you are a Vitality member with a qualifying health plan, our Cancer Treatment Support Programme offers a holistic approach and access to dedicated cancer professionals, including psychologists, nurse specialists and more, to help you and your loved ones through whatever you are facing.

Health checks might seem like a chore or even a bit scary, but early diagnosis of cancer can make all the difference.

Members of Vitality who have a health insurance plan can contact us straight away and be referred to our clinic. You won’t need to go through your GP first.

However, if you’re not insured with Vitality, please contact your GP as soon as possible and they can refer you to the NHS pathway should you require it.

When a member is diagnosed with cancer, Vitality Advanced Cancer Cover provides access to an array of treatments.

This will extend to treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, as well as hormone therapy, bisphosphonate treatment and the latest cutting-edge treatments where clinically appropriate.

Visit vitality.co.uk or Member Zone for more information.
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