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Ovarian cancer - do you know the signs?

Friday, February 19, 2016


February is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month

Ovarian cancer is one of the lesser-known cancers affecting women, even though it is the fourth deadliest cancer for New Zealand women.   

This month we take a look at ovarian cancer, its hard-to-spot symptoms and how you can best look after yourself.

Ovarian cancer is the one of five gynaecological cancers, which include:

  • Cervical cancer
  • Endometrial cancer
  • Vulval cancer
  • Vaginal cancer

Of these, ovarian cancer is the most likely to be fatal.

Although it is much less common than other cancers, ovarian cancer is very difficult to diagnose, as its symptoms are similar to other common, but less serious, health issues such as irritable bowel syndrome or constipation.

Symptoms often only appear in the later stages of the cancer, meaning by the time most women visit a doctor, the cancer may have already spread beyond the ovary.

It is for these reasons that ovarian cancer is sometimes called the “silent cancer”.


If you experience any of the following symptoms most days, for two weeks or more, you should make an appointment to see your doctor:

  • Abdominal pain, or increase in abdominal size
  • Persistent bloating
  • Feeling full quickly, or having trouble eating
  • Losing weight very easily
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Changes to bowel function
  • Needing to urinate more frequently, often urgently
  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding
  • Back pain.

Your doctor might do a pelvic exam if they suspect you might have ovarian cancer, as well as ordering various tests (a blood test or an ultrasound scan.)

Risk factors

Although there aren’t any known lifestyle causes for ovarian cancer, there are other factors which can raise your risk of developing ovarian cancer:

  • A family history of ovarian, breast, bowel or uterus lining cancers
  • Women who have few or no pregnancies
  • Women who have hormone replacement therapy, especially for longer periods of time
  • Some forms of ovarian cancer are caused by an inherited gene mutation. This was initially discovered in families with several cases of breast cancer, and women with this mutation have a higher risk of ovarian cancer
  • It is believed the more periods you have had in your life (or the more active your ovaries have been in releasing eggs), the greater chance you have of developing ovarian cancer. That’s why your risk can increase if you started your period early, went through menopause late, haven’t had children, or if you haven’t used contraception that stops ovulation (such as the pill)
  • Risk also increases with age.

Be aware of the signs of gynaecological cancers, particularly ovarian cancer, and if you notice any symptoms, visit your doctor as soon as possible.

If you belong to any of the higher risk groups, speak with your doctor, and make sure you have regular check-ups.

Did you know?

  • You can cut your risk of ovarian cancer by taking the combined contraceptive pill (“the pill”). It can reduce your risk by 50% and this protection can last up to 30 years after you stop taking the pill.
  • There is no screening programme for ovarian cancer. 

Beat Ovarian Cancer

  Beat Ovarian Cancer

And talk to your doctor sooner rather than later. 

Family Planning has clinics located throughout New Zealand. Use the clinic finder to find your nearest clinic.

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