Learn more about ovarian and prostate cancer
March 7 2017
Awareness of cancer, thanks in no small part to extensive media coverage, has never been higher. During the month of March, awareness campaigns are running all over - specifically aimed at two types of cancer: ovarian and prostate. So let’s find out some more about them:
Ovarian cancer, or cancer of the ovaries, is one of the most common types of cancer in women. The ovaries are a pair of small organs located low in the tummy that are connected to the womb and store a woman's supply of eggs.
Ovarian cancer mainly affects women who have been through the menopause (usually over the age of 50), but it can sometimes affect younger women.
Common symptoms of ovarian cancer include feeling constantly bloated, a swollen tummy, discomfort in your tummy or pelvic area, feeling full quickly when eating and needing to pee more often than normal. The symptoms aren't always easy to recognise because they're similar to those of some more common conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
You should see your GP if you've been feeling bloated most days for the last three weeks, you have other symptoms of ovarian cancer that won't go away or you have a family history of ovarian cancer and are worried you may be at a higher risk of getting it.
It's unlikely you have cancer, but it's best to check. Your GP can do some simple tests to see if you might have it. If you've already seen your GP and your symptoms continue or get worse, go back to them and explain this.
If you have a family history of ovarian cancer, your GP may refer you to a genetics specialist to discuss the option of genetic testing to check your ovarian cancer risk.
The exact cause of ovarian cancer is unknown but some things may increase a woman's risk of getting it, such as being over 50 years of age, a family history of ovarian or breast cancer – this could mean you've inherited genes that increase your cancer risk, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) – although any increase in cancer risk is likely to be very small, endometriosis – a condition where tissue that behaves like the lining of the womb is found outside the womb, and being overweight.
The treatment for ovarian cancer depends on things such as how far the cancer has spread and your general health.
The main treatments are surgery to remove as much of the cancer as possible – this will often involve removing both ovaries, the womb and the tubes connecting them to each other (fallopian tubes) – or chemotherapy, where medicine is used to kill cancer cells. This is usually used after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells, but is occasionally used before surgery to shrink the cancer
Treatment will aim to cure the cancer whenever possible. If the cancer has spread too far to be cured, the aim is to relieve symptoms and control the cancer for as long as possible. The earlier ovarian cancer is diagnosed and treated, the better the chance of a cure.
Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men in the UK, with more than 40,000 new cases diagnosed every year. Prostate cancer usually develops slowly, so there may be no signs you have it for many years. Symptoms often only become apparent when your prostate is large enough to affect the urethra (the tube that carries urine from the bladder to the penis). When this happens, you may notice things like an increased need to urinate, straining while urinating and a feeling that your bladder has not fully emptied.
These symptoms shouldn’t be ignored, but they do not mean you definitely have prostate cancer. It is more likely that they are caused by something else, such as benign prostatic hyperplasia (also known as BPH or prostate enlargement).
The causes of prostate cancer are largely unknown. However, certain things can increase your risk of developing the condition. The chances of developing prostate cancer increase as you get older. Most cases develop in men aged 50 or older.
For reasons not yet understood, prostate cancer is more common in men of African-Caribbean or African descent, and less common in men of Asian descent. Men who have first degree male relatives (such as a father or brother) affected by prostate cancer are also at slightly increased risk.
There is no single test for prostate cancer. All the tests used to help diagnose the condition have benefits and risks, which your doctor should discuss with you. The most commonly used tests for prostate cancer are blood tests, a physical examination of your prostate (known as a digital rectal examination or DRE) and a biopsy.
The blood test, known as a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test, measures the level of PSA and may help detect early prostate cancer. Men are not routinely offered PSA tests to screen for prostate cancer, as results can be unreliable. This is because the PSA blood test is not specific to prostate cancer. PSA can be raised due to a large non-cancerous growth of the prostate (BPH), a urinary tract infection or inflammation of the prostate, as well as prostate cancer. Raised PSA levels also cannot tell a doctor whether a man has life-threatening prostate cancer or not. This means a raised PSA can lead to unnecessary tests and treatment.
However, you can ask to be tested for prostate cancer once the benefits and risks have been explained to you.
For many men with prostate cancer, treatment is not immediately necessary. If the cancer is at an early stage and not causing symptoms, a policy of "watchful waiting" or "active surveillance" may be adopted. This involves carefully monitoring your condition.
Some cases of prostate cancer can be cured if treated in the early stages. Treatments include surgically removing the prostate, radiotherapy and hormone therapy.
Some cases are only diagnosed at a later stage when the cancer has spread. If the cancer spreads to other parts of the body, typically the bones, it cannot be cured and treatment is focused on prolonging life and relieving symptoms.
All treatment options carry the risk of significant side-effects, including erectile dysfunction and urinary incontinence. For this reason, many men choose to delay treatment until there is a risk the cancer might spread.
Newer treatments, such as high-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) or cryotherapy, aim to reduce these side-effects. Some hospitals may offer them as an alternative to surgery, radiotherapy or hormone therapy. However, the long-term effectiveness of these treatments are not yet known.