Ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer happens in the ovaries. The ovaries are part of the reproductive system. They produce an egg every month once young women start their periods. The ovaries also produce the female hormones, oestrogen and progesterone, which control the menstrual cycle.

Types of ovarian cancers

There are different types of ovarian cancer, but young women are most commonly diagnosed with germ cell tumours – cancer that occurs in the egg-producing cells of the ovaries. If you or your child has been diagnosed with a different type of ovarian cancer, talk to your specialist for more information about that particular cancer and its treatment.

What are the symptoms?

The most common symptoms of ovarian cancer are abdominal pain or swelling, and sometimes an increased need to pass urine. It can also cause bleeding between periods, or changes to your menstrual cycle. There can be many different causes for this, so it’s important to get checked out by your GP.

How is it diagnosed?

Ovarian cancer is usually diagnosed after an internal pelvic examination at a hospital. It may also involve blood tests, ultrasound or CT scans or a laparoscopy. In a laparoscopy, specialists make a small cut to the abdomen which allows them to look at the ovaries and surrounding area with a tiny camera.

Based on these tests, the specialist will be able to assign a stage to the cancer. This refers to the size of the tumour and whether it has spread to other organs, such as the womb or lymph nodes.

How is it treated?

Treatment for ovarian germ cell tumours usually involves surgery and chemotherapy. The exact treatment will depend on the location and spread of the germ cell tumour, so it’s best to talk to your specialist for further information.

The first stage of treatment for ovarian cancer is usually an operation to remove the affected ovary and the attached fallopian tube. This is called a ‘laparotomy’. If only one ovary needs to be removed, this won’t affect your or your child’s ability to have children.

Chemotherapy is the use of anti-cancer drugs to target the cancer cells. These are usually given as an injection or through a drip every 3–4 weeks for four or more sessions of treatment. Chemotherapy can affect periods. They may stop or become irregular. Once treatment is finished, periods should return to normal, although this may take several months.

What happens after treatment?

Your specialists will do everything they can to preserve your ability – or your daughter’s ability – to have children. But the most important thing will need to be fighting the cancer.

If only one ovary is removed, it’s likely that the menstrual cycle will get back to normal several months after chemotherapy. However, if both ovaries are removed, it will take specialist help to have a baby in the future. If this is you, it’s important to talk things through with your specialist or nurse.

You will still need to attend an outpatient clinic regularly so your specialist can check your progress and make sure your cancer hasn’t returned.

Many people don’t have long term health problems following treatment, but some do. Talk to your specialist about the potential long-term side effects of your treatment.

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