Ovarian cancer isn’t as well-known as some other female cancers, yet it is the fifth most common – with more than 7000 new cases in the UK each year. Our five- year survival rate is just 46%, one of the lowest in Western Europe, with a woman dying from ovarian cancer every two hours, resulting in 4300 deaths annually. To lower this, we need to improve the recognition of symptoms, understand who might be at risk of developing the disease, and speed up diagnosis and referral to secondary care. Nurses have an extremely important role to play here.
A woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer during her lifetime is just one in 52, but there are factors that can increase a women’s risk of developing ovarian cancer.
The two most important risk factors for ovarian cancer are age and family history. More than 80% of cases occur in women who are aged 50 or over. Around 15% of cases occur in women who have a family history of cancer. This increase in risk is most often due to the inherited mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.
BRCA gene mutations are associated with both breast and ovarian cancer. Those who have a BRCA gene mutation have a 35% to 60% chance of developing ovarian cancer and an 80% chance of developing breast cancer.
Other factors that slightly increase the risk of developing ovarian cancer include being obese, not having children, having endometriosis and use of HRT. A women’s risk decreases with each pregnancy she has, and breastfeeding and taking the contraceptive pill lowers risk too.
The symptoms of ovarian cancer can be challenging to recognise because they are similar to those of a number of non-serious conditions.
If a woman presents with persistent abdominal distention or bloating; pelvic or abdominal pain; or loss of appetite on a persistent and frequent basis (ie more than 12 times a month) – especially if she is aged 50 or over – then ovarian cancer should be suspected and tested for.
Aside from learning about the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer, Ovarian Cancer Action tries to encourage health professionals to be ‘BRCA aware’, not least because if your patients have a BRCA1/2 gene mutation their risk of developing ovarian cancer rises from one in 52 to one in two.
To help patients determine whether they could carry a BRCA1/2 gene mutation we’ve created an online BRCA risk assessment test; an online calculator to help people explore their family history and make an informed decision about whether they should consider being tested for BRCA 1/2 gene mutations. You can access the tool at ovarian.org.uk/brca-risk-tool. Five minutes on the tool are five minutes that might just save a life.
Ross Little is the health projects manager, Ovarian Cancer Action