This week’s post in honor of Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month is all about awareness, and it’s made extra special today as we stand together in celebration of International Women’s Day. Thinking about how we can fight a disease that attacks the very part of our body that defines us as females felt so fitting. So, we want to talk about how we can create quicker action against ovarian cancer by understanding more about this deadly disease and pushing for more research.
The sad truth is, ovarian cancer kills more women in the UK than the other four gynecological cancers combined (uterine, cervical, vaginal and vulval). That’s why we’re here to shout about ways you can increase your awareness and take quicker action against ovarian cancer today – because the earlier we can detect ovarian cancer, the sooner we can fight it. With no national awareness programme dedicated to ovarian cancer, we need to take it upon ourselves to increase awareness and help save lives of our friends, sisters, mothers, daughters, and even ourselves.
The best place to build awareness is by knowing what to look out for. Ovarian cancer has four primary symptoms:
- Persistent stomach pain
- Persistent bloating
- Difficulty eating / feeling full more quickly
- Needing to urinate more frequently.
Now, these symptoms are also attributable to much less serious conditions such as IBS, ovarian cysts, and polycystic ovary syndrome – so if you are experiencing them – there is no need to worry right away. Remember, it’s all about awareness; being aware of how your body is feeling, listening to what it is telling you, and recognizing when things don’t feel right. If any of the above symptoms are persistent, severe, frequent, or out of the ordinary it’s best to call your doctor right away to make sure you are addressing whatever the situation is as soon as possible.
Improving Prevention & Early Detection
But when we think about cancer prevention, we’d rather be one step ahead of the symptoms than experiencing them, and we can do that through preventative screening. But with ovarian cancer, this is where things get tricky. One of the biggest misconceptions about ovarian cancer is that it’s screened and tested for during a routine cervical smear (or Pap smear). Unfortunately, that’s not the case. At present, there is no screening tool for ovarian cancer – and that’s where part of the problem lies.
With a lack of screening, most women don’t find out they have ovarian cancer until they have progressed into later stages of the disease, as symptoms become increasingly worse. Sadly, as with all cancers, as it progresses the chances of survival significantly drop. If a woman’s ovarian cancer is diagnosed at stage 1 she has a 90% chance of surviving for five years or more. However, only 33% of women are diagnosed at this stage. By stage 4 survival rate is as low as 4%. So how do we help fix this? Earlier detection and diagnosis. And how can we do that? Through continued research.
The Power Of Research
Research has already uncovered an exciting and effective cancer prevention strategy that you should be aware of, and it’s called BRCA testing. For a quick recap on what BRCA testing is, it’s a blood test that checks for mutations in genes called BRCA1 and BRCA2, and it can help you better understand your chances of getting breast cancer and ovarian cancer. While we all have BRCA genes, some people (men and women) are born with a mutation at one of these BRCA gene locations. Now for both cancers, having a mutation at a BRCA location does not mean you will definitely develop breast or ovarian cancer, it just means that you are at a higher risk for these diseases.
So, while it’s not a complete screening tool for ovarian cancer, it has important implications for this disease. A recent study, led by the University of Melbourne in Australian and in conjunction with 18 other countries across the world, followed nearly 10,000 women with BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations for up to 20 years. They produced results that give a clearer idea of when women with BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations are most likely to develop breast and ovarian cancer – something that could prove to be life-saving for so many women worldwide.
To give you the numbers, the study found that by the age of 80, BRCA1 gene mutation carriers had on average a 72% chance of developing breast cancer and 44% chance of getting ovarian cancer. For BRCA2 mutation carriers the risk is 69% for breast cancer and 17% for ovarian cancer by the age of 80. The study also showed that cancer risk increases rapidly at a younger age, peaking in the 30s for BRCA1 mutations carriers, and 40s for BRCA2 mutation carriers. Risk then remains high until a woman reaches her 80s, and not her 60s as previously thought.
It was found that a woman’s risk is higher where there are more cases of breast and ovarian cancer in her family history, compared to those women with few cases. This is interesting new information that can help women identify when they are going to be most at risk, and allow them to make more informed decisions about screening and when to have risk-reducing surgery. This is particularly important when thinking about things such as when to start a family as those who carry the faulty gene have a 50% chance of passing it on to their children and, if undiscovered, consequences can be devastating (read more on BRCA gene mutation). It also shows the importance of BRCA gene mutation carriers being aware of their family history of breast and ovarian cancer so they know if they are more at risk. What all of this research hopefully encourages you to do is to take your health into your own hands by examining your family history and discussing with your doctor whether BRCA testing may be beneficial to you.
The Need For More
While recent research findings are incredibly promising and starting to make a change – we still need more research and more awareness. Despite what’s been uncovered with BRCA testing, a recent study found that 29% of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer are not being offered BRCA testing and yet this is likely one of the best tools to identify carriers. Around 17% of cases of ovarian cancer are linked to BRCA (meaning in 17% of ovarian cancer cases, the woman has a BRCA gene mutation) – this equates to over 1,000 women a year whose lives could potentially be saved, and yet there are so many women who have not heard of the BRCA gene.
At the moment the diagnosis and treatment of ovarian cancers lags behind other high profile diseases like prostate or breast cancer. Ovarian Cancer Action thinks this is unacceptable – and we wholeheartedly agree. That’s why the OCA is on a mission to do whatever they can to stop women dying from this disease by finding and funding the innovators who will help break this cancer. One such researcher that the OCA funds is Professor Ahmed Ahmed. His work at the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine at the University of Oxford studies the molecular mechanisms that cause ovarian cancer cells to grow so that new targeted drugs can be used to improve women’s response to chemotherapy. The team has also made significant discoveries in the field of early detection that could form the foundations of a screening tool. For more information about the research they fund, check out the “Our Research” page of their website.
If you want to support the push for greater awareness and more research on ovarian cancer, and be a part of a movement that fights a cancer that attacks the most intimate part of our womanhood – join us today in supporting Ovarian Cancer Action and the incredible things they are doing. We’re on a mission to reach our £1000 raise goal this month, and if you’re able to we’d love for you to join us in donating today. In honor of all women this International Women’s Day.