Last week’s announcement that in addition to a double mastectomy last year, actress Angelina Jolie had also removed her ovaries to reduce the risk of contracting ovarian cancer, has placed the spotlights once again on this devastating illness which according to Cancer Research UK, is the UK’s fifth top killer of women.
Causes of ovarian cancer
As with other cancers, would that we knew what makes cells in the ovaries become cancerous, but it is thought that the following are risk factors:
Our genes are the ‘computer program’ that makes us who we are. When a gene is faulty it may start to multiply out of control which may lead to cancer. Faulty genes may be caused by external factors such as radiation or nicotine; they may also be inherited. Genes called BRCA1, BRCA2, TP53 or PTEN are linked to breast cancer and if they are faulty, the carrier can be at high risk of developing the condition. In the case of Angelina Jolie, she carries a faulty BRCA1 gene which, according to her medical team, gave her an 87% chance of getting breast cancer and a 50% chance of getting ovarian cancer.
The risk of cancer increases with age. Statistics show that most women who get ovarian cancer are post menopausal.
Breast cancer and ovarian cancer are caused by the same faulty gene. Women who have had breast cancer are at a higher risk of suffering from ovarian cancer.
It was once thought that fertility treatment increased a woman’s risk of ovarian cancer but this has now been shown to be not the case. It is agreed though, that more research is required.
Other factors such as obesity, having gone through Hormone Replacement Therapy, diet and smoking are thought to increase the risk.
As with many fatal cancers, in the early stages, ovarian cancer may have no symptoms. If there are symptoms the sufferer may feel vague symptoms such as abdominal pain, swelling or bloating which may be easily confused with other more common conditions. In later stage cancer the symptoms may include; lack of appetite; tiredness; pelvic discomfort; indigestion, gas or nausea; back pains; need to urinate frequently or urgently; lack of energy; changes in bowel habits.
Basically, the advice would be that if you identify any changes in how you feel, however trivial it may seem, don’t just assume that ‘it’ll pass’.
Unfortunately there is no sure way of preventing ovarian cancer. The following steps can reduce the risk but all of them have risks and benefits so if concerned you should seek expert medical advice:
Removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes
Women at high risk of ovarian cancer such as for example, those carrying the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes might choose to surgically remove the ovaries and fallopian tubes. Experts stress that this procedure is appropriate mainly for such women who have inherited these gene mutations and who have a strong family history of breast and ovarian cancer. In the case of Jolie, she both had the BRCA1 gene and three close relatives died of cancer. It should be kept in mind though that removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes will evidently result in infertility and early menopause.
Oral contraceptives, especially if taken over a number of years can reduce the risk of ovarian cancer. Birth control pills however can have side effects. Consult your doctor for all the risks and benefits.
Tubal ligation is a procedure whereby the fallopian tubes are tied so that pregnancy becomes impossible. This procedure is thought to reduce the risks of ovarian cancer.
Genetic testing and screening
Genetic testing can tell you whether you've inherited the faulty BRCA1, BRCA2 gene mutation which will increase your risk of cancer. Screening methods include doing what is known as the CA125 Blood Test and a Tranvaginal ultrasound but unfortunately, these tests are not completely reliable.
This list is not meant to be comprehensive. It is a general guide of possible ways of reducing the risk of ovarian cancer. Unfortunately there is no reliable screening for ovarian cancer. If concerned you should consult your doctor without delay.
Multicoloured fruit and vegetables
It is known that a diet low in fat and high in non-starchy fruit and vegetables may reduce the risk of many cancers. Make wholegrains, pulses, fruit and vegetables the mainstay of your diet. There is no evidence that a particular nutrient is particularly effective in promoting ovarian health but fruit and vegetables are rich in fibre, vitamins and nutrients and are low in energy density.
Experts stress that as little as 30 minutes of daily exercise can protect you from serious illness. Most of us however, lead a very sedentary lifestyle, sometimes walking less than half an hour a day. Exercise is essential to help you maintain a healthy weight thereby reducing the risk of illness.
Until scientists discover what triggers cells to become cancerous, certain prevention of cancer is impossible. What we can do however, is to reduce the risk factors which hopefully will stack the odds in our favour.