About 7,000 women in the UK are affected by cancer of the ovary each year. It is the fifth most common cancer among women after breast cancer, bowel cancer, lung cancer and cancer of the uterus. It is most common after the menopause but can affect women of any age.
The symptoms of ovarian cancer can be similar to those of other conditions. However, pain in the pelvis and lower stomach, persistent bloating, nausea and difficulty eating are early signs that should not be ignored. If you are experiencing these symptoms, particularly over a long period of time, it is important that you see your GP.
“I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer eight years ago. I was 17 when I had my operation – usually young.
“It’s hard to place when the actual symptoms started but almost two years before being diagnosed I lost a lot of weight – nearly a stone in a week and another stone over a short period. Speaking of periods, they stopped suddenly and completely. I also experienced nausea, dizziness and turned a funny yellow colour.
“At first doctors thought it was an eating disorder due to my dramatic weight loss and lack of appetite due to the nausea. After being referred to a dietitian, given numerous blood tests and an endoscopy, I was referred to the gynaecological department for an ultrasound of my pelvis and abdomen. It was almost a relief to be told there was an abnormality in my left ovary – I wasn’t imagining everything! I was then booked in for an appointment for a laparoscopy for further investigation. When the samples came back, I was told I had a very rare form of ovarian cancer: a juvenile granulosa cell tumour. I was lucky – the outlook for this kind of tumour was good.
“I had a further operation to remove the left ovary and take samples from surrounding areas. Luckily the cancer had not spread. I know I was fortunate – I avoided chemo or radiotherapy and was able to take my A-levels the following month.
“My consultant and team have been amazing and I have a very thorough follow-up plan. I am now 25 and a special educational needs teacher. I would love to make sure others are aware of this disease, so they can get on with their lives too.”
Here are just a few of the ground-breaking discoveries our work has led to:
New screening techniques improve early diagnosis of ovarian cancer
Professor Ian Jacobs, The London Hospital
In 1989, due to late presentation of the disease, more than 70% of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer would die within 5 years. This project pioneered the use of a combination of screening techniques that would help improve early diagnosis and subsequently survival rates. At the time of the study, pelvic examinations were the only method of screening for ovarian cancer, and they often produced inaccurate results. Professor Jacobs carried out a trial to determine whether a newly discovered blood test, along with ultrasound screening, could be used to detect ovarian cancer in the early stages. This blood test is now routinely used as the first step in diagnosing the disease, and thanks to this investment in medical research, improved detection has contributed to an increase in the ovarian cancer survival rate by 50%.
Establishing how ovarian cancer cells spread
Professor David Luesley, University of Birmingham
Ovarian cancer is particularly hard to treat as it is often diagnosed at a late stage, by which time it has already spread beyond the ovaries. In this situation, surgery rarely removes all of the disease and most patients require additional chemotherapy. It had been suggested that in other cancers, surgery may speed up the growth of any remaining cancer cells. Therefore a deeper understanding of how ovarian cancer cells grow is necessary in order to improve treatment and outcomes. Professor Luesley’s study revealed that surgery can influence the way in which tumours grow and established that the peak time for growth occurs in the first week, providing scientific evidence to confirm the need for chemotherapy following surgery.
‘Virotherapy’ used to target and treat ovarian cancer more effectively
Dr Jo Morrison, University of Oxford
While survival rates for other cancers are much improved, treating ovarian cancer remains
a major problem for doctors as it is often diagnosed once tumours have become resistant to traditional chemotherapy. Dr Morrison therefore aimed to develop a more effective, targeted treatment for this disease, using ‘virotherapy’ – developing viruses which specifically target cancer cells and leave healthy cells unharmed. She discovered that a modified version of the common cold virus could be used to deliver a non-toxic treatment directly to ovarian cancer cells, maximising chances of successful treatment, but without the distressing side-effects of chemotherapy. This laid the foundation for a potential new, effective treatment for ovarian cancer.
Discovering a new means of predicting ovarian cancer resistance
Dr Sarah Blagden, Imperial College London
Resistance to chemotherapy is a major cause of the high mortality rate of ovarian cancer. Currently there are no indicators of whether a woman will be resistant to the standard chemotherapy (such as platinum), thereby exposing them to side effects of an ineffective treatment, and also enabling resistant tumours to become well-established. This project is investigated a protein, Larp1, which is thought to play a key role in cancer cells becoming less sensitive and more aggressive. Dr Blagden confirmed that Larp1 has a role in cancer progression and has developed a test to detect Larp1 levels in ovarian cancer patients. This test shows great promise in allowing doctors to predict how aggressive and chemotherapy-sensitive a patient’s cancer is, meaning they can be given appropriate treatment sooner. In the future, Larp1 could potentially be manipulated to make cancers less aggressive and respond better to chemotherapy, with important implications in the diagnosis and treatment of ovarian cancer.
Developing a urine test to detect ovarian cancer
Dr David Jeevan, University of Birmingham
Can hormone patterns be a new way to test for ovarian cancer? Dr David Jeevan, University of Birmingham
Hormones are naturally found in the body and they control many functions. Oestrogen and testosterone are common examples but more hormones exist. Many hormones have been suspected to contribute to the spread of ovarian cancer but little scientific work has been done to investigate this.
Recently hormone patterns in patients have been investigated as a new test for different cancers. At the University of Birmingham, a team of scientists have been studying the adrenal glands – organs that sit above the kidneys and make adrenaline – which can develop tumours. The scientists discovered a way to test for adrenal cancer by looking for a hormone pattern in urine with advanced super-computer technology. During this work, they identified a woman a woman who had an unusual hormone pattern in her urine who was later diagnosed with ovarian cancer – suggesting that this innovate method could offer a simple and effective test for ovarian cancer.
Dr Jeevan will test if ovarian cancer causes changes in hormone production and find out how it happens. This will help doctors and scientists understand more about ovarian cancer and lay the foundations for a new test for ovarian cancer. This could lead to saving many thousands of women’s lives and have worldwide implications.