MYTH 1: It’s A Silent Killer
One of the most persistent and dangerous myths about ovarian cancer is that it’s a symptomless disease. While it’s true ovarian cancer symptoms are usually vague and subtle, there are four main signs to look out for: persistent bloating, stomach pain, finding it difficult to eat, and needing to pee more often.
We all experience these symptoms from time to time, and they're similar to those of some more common conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). However in cases of ovarian cancer, the key is to note whether these symptoms are new and unusual, persistent, frequent, and severe. If so, visit your GP.
MYTH 2: Cervical Screens Detect It
In a recent poll, Ovarian Cancer Action found that one in four women believed cervical screening detects ovarian cancer. Unfortunately, there’s currently no screening programme for ovarian cancer, making symptom awareness vital – it’s the best tool we have to spot the disease early, when survival rates are highest.
When ovarian cancer is diagnosed in the early stages, more than 70% of women will survive it. But at the moment, the UK has the worst survival rate in Europe – two-thirds of UK women diagnosed with the disease don’t survive beyond five years.
MYTH 3: Only Older Women Develop It
While it’s true that ovarian cancer mainly affects women who’ve been through the menopause and that most cases are present in women above the age of 50, one in five women diagnosed are younger. And it can affect children too – earlier this year a 12-year-old British schoolgirl became one the youngest people diagnosed with the disease.
In younger women, the more common types of ovarian cancer are borderline tumours, germ cell tumours and – the rarest type – granulosa and sertoli-leydig cell tumours.
MYTH 4: It’s The Same As Cervical Cancer
Sadly, there are lots of different gynaecological cancers, so it pays to be aware of each one. The five main gynaecological cancers are cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal and vulvar; and each one presents different symptoms.
Ovarian cancer is actually a bigger threat than cervical cancer – killing around 4,300 British women a year, compared to under 900 cervical cancer deaths. This is due to regular smear tests for cervical cancer, with Cancer Research UK estimating the test saves 4,500 lives a year.
MYTH 5: You Can’t Reduce Your Risk
While the exact cause of ovarian cancer is unknown, some things may increase or decrease a woman's risk of getting it. Evidence suggests taking the contraceptive pill reduces your ovarian cancer risk, and a few lifestyle factors can increase your chances of developing the disease. These are smoking, obesity, not breastfeeding, and using hormone replacement therapy (although any increase in cancer risk is likely to be very small).
As for the risks you can’t change, women with endometriosis – a condition where tissue that behaves like the lining of the womb is found outside the womb – are at higher risk of ovarian cancer, and genetic factors also play a role. Those with a family history of ovarian or breast cancer are more likely to develop the disease, and carrying a BRCA1/2 gene mutation increases the average 2% chance that a woman will develop ovarian cancer to between 10% and 60%.