Ovarian Cancer: the silent killer

by Siya Mahomba
Ovarian Cancer all you need to know - Baby Yum Yum
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It was World Ovarian Cancer Day May 8th. Read on for the lowdown on this potentially fatal disease. By Siya Mahomba

CANSA describes Ovarian Cancer as the most lethal of gynecologic cancers for which there is no reliable screening test–and every person assigned female at birth is at risk. An estimated 1500 South Africans are diagnosed with ovarian cancer every year, according to National Health Laboratory Services.

Often called “The Silent Killer together with Cervical Cancer, the risk is that often the most severe symptoms present only once the disease is in the advanced stages, making it far more difficult to treat. The earlier symptoms can be mistaken for and mimic less serious health issues.

Read more on Cervical Cancer

Local Researchers and experts in the medical field have expressed concern about the rise in of ovarian cancer cases and have called for greater awareness. Gynaecologic oncologist at Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town, Dr Haleema Addae shares her professional insights below.

What exactly is Ovarian Cancer?

The term ‘Ovarian Cancer’ refers a group of cancers that affect the ovaries, fallopian tube, and the peritoneum, which is the lining of the abdomen.

How is it detected?

Once a patient presents with suspicious symptoms, they will be examined to reach a diagnosis. This includes blood tests and an ultrasound examination to assess the ovaries. A CT scan may be done to determine the spread of the cancer, if any, and to prepare for the surgery.

Are there any forms of self-exam for it?

Unlike breast cancer, there is no self-exam to detect ovarian cancer.

Does it affect women of a certain age?

There are different types of ovarian cancers. They are classified according to the area of the ovary on which they arise. The most common are the epithelial ovarian cancers, which tend to occur in women who are in their 60s and 70s. Younger women who have a genetic predisposition to cancer may develop ovarian cancer in their 40s or 50s. Other kinds of ovarian cancers can occur at different ages.

What are the symptoms to look out for?

The symptoms associated with ovarian cancer are very vague and can be explained away by other benign conditions. Danger signs would be:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Feeling full easily even though eating your usual portions of food
  • Feeling a growth in your abdomen, which is sometimes accompanied by abdominal pain

Are there any treatment options available for it?

The cornerstone of treatment is surgery. Prior to surgery tests are done to determine the stage and type of the cancer. The exact type of surgery is determined by the age of the patient and their fertility desires, as well as their physical readiness to undergo surgery.

Some patients are given chemotherapy as a start and then assessed for surgery at a later stage. For patients that are inoperable for whatever reason, chemotherapy is the mainstay of treatment.

Can it be prevented? If so, how?

In certain families there is a genetic risk of getting cancer. If you have a family history of breast and ovarian cancer, you should see a genetic counselor to assess for risk of developing cancer. A risk-reducing surgery is available for people who test positive for the cancer gene. This procedure involves the removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes to limit the chances of getting ovarian cancer.

Unfortunately for most women, there isn’t a screening test, or any real preventative measures they can take.

* Note from BYY–living a healthy lifestyle, minimising stress, not smoking or drinking too much and focusing on your wellbeing can be empowering as well as assist your body with fighting potential diseases and keeping your immune system strong.

What challenges does ovarian cancer pose to fertility?

A cancer that attacks the ovaries will most likely lead to removal of the ovaries. The surgery is always dependent on the type of ovarian cancer we are dealing with. For most patients, fertility is not an issue as they are normally past their reproductive age.

For those who are still within their reproductive age, there is option in some cases to remove one ovary to preserve fertility. There are also other fertility options for those who must have both ovaries removed, such as egg-freezing.

Find out more about freezing your eggs

What is the prognosis for ovarian cancer?

The prognosis is dependent on factors such as age, general health status, the kind of ovarian cancer, and the stage at which it was diagnosed and whether the cancer has spread or not. These factors will determine the kind and intention of treatment that can be provided. Sometimes the cancer is treated with curative intentions and other times with palliative intentions.

Palliative intentions mean the disease can’t be cured so the aim it so to limit its progression and manage the patient’s symptoms. Due to the vague symptoms of the disease, most patients present at an advanced stage of the disease and therefore the prognosis is usually not as optimistic as some other types of cancer.

Learn to examine yourself for breast cancer
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