February is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month and aims to raise awareness of the disease and its impact on those affected.
It's estimated ovarian cancer was the most common cause of death from gynaecological cancer in Australia during 2015, with approximately 1,020 deaths. In 2015, it was estimated 1,460 cases of ovarian cancer would be diagnosed, making it the second most common gynaecological cancer in Australia. While the survival rate for ovarian cancer has improved significantly in recent years, it still remains low in comparison with other gynaecological cancers. Sadly, only 43 out of 100 women with ovarian cancer survive five years beyond their diagnosis - a statistic we need to change!
About ovarian cancer
The ovaries are two small, oval-shaped organs, each about 3 cm long and 1 cm thick. They are found in the lower part of the abdomen (the pelvic cavity). There is one ovary on each side of the uterus. Each ovary has an outer covering made up of a layer of cells called the epithelium. Inside are germ cells, which will eventually mature into eggs (ova). The ovaries also release the female hormones oestrogen and progesterone from cells called sex-cord stromal cells.
Ovarian cancer is the growth of abnormal cells in one or both ovaries. Left untreated, ovarian cancer can spread to other parts of the body.
There are three types of ovarian cancer. The most common type of ovarian cancer is epithelial ovarian cancer. Epithelial cells form the outer covering of the ovary and this is where the cancer starts. Over 80 per cent of women with ovarian cancer have epithelial ovarian cancer.
Other types of ovarian cancer include:
- Germ cell ovarian cancer, which starts in the egg producing cells within ovaries. This type of cancer accounts for approximately 4 per cent of ovarian cancers2 and usually affect women younger than 30.
- Sex-cord stromal cancer develops in the cells that produce female hormones, oestrogen and progesterone. Sex-cord stromal cancers can occur at any time and account for less than 1.5 per cent of ovarian cancers.
How common is it?
Because it is difficult to detect in its early stages, there are more deaths from ovarian cancer than any other gynaecological cancer. In WA in 2011, 133 women were diagnosed with ovarian cancer and 81 died from the disease.
The chances of a woman developing ovarian cancer by the time she is aged 85 (lifetime risk) is 1 in 78.
Ovarian cancer is more common in women over 50. The average age at diagnosis is 63.
The causes of ovarian cancer are not fully understood. However, there are a number of factors that are known to increase the risk of developing ovarian cancer - some of which are beyond your control, while others are not.
Known risk factors for ovarian cancer include:
- getting older: women who are over 50 are more likely to develop ovarian cancer than younger women
- inheriting a faulty gene (called a gene mutation) that increases the risk of ovarian cancer
- having a strong family history of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, or some other cancers, including bowel and endometrial cancer. It is important to remember that only around 5-10 per cent of all ovarian cancers are due to inherited factors
- endometriosis, which is when the tissue lining of the uterus (the endometrium) is found outside the uterus
- hormonal factors such as early puberty, late menopause or the long-term use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
Lifestyle factors are things you can do something about. Your risk of ovarian cancer is increased if you:
- are overweight or obese
- don't exercise
- have a poor diet
- drink alcohol
For more information, visit our page on ovarian cancer.