Many women face the possibility of having a reproductive disease and/or problems at some point in their lifetime. For some they’ve had issues their whole lives, for others problems develop suddenly with little or no warning. Some of the reproductive diseases that women can face are well known while others are not very well known and often get missed or misdiagnosed until it is either too late for treatment or the woman is physically and mentally/emotionally crippled by the pain.
This blog post series is inspired by my own recent experiences of facing a potential diagnosis of either Endometriosis, which is what I was officially diagnosed with after a minor laparoscopic surgery and of which I already had a rudimentary knowledge of endometriosis as my mother has it as well, or Ovarian Cancer, which I knew pretty much nothing about let alone what the most common symptoms were until I faced the possibility of having it and began researching everything I could about ovarian cancer, so we are going to have a look at some of the most common reproductive diseases and problems that we as women can potentially face including endometriosis and ovarian cancer. I must stress right now that not everyone will develop one of these diseases/problems and this is not intended as a diagnostic or medical tool, this post is meant to provide awareness as it is always a good idea to know the signs and symptoms that can point to there being a problem so that you can find the best care provider possible for your particular circumstances.
The diseases we will be looking at in this blog post series are as follows:
- Ovarian Cancer
- Cervical Cancer
- Uterine Cancer
- Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)
Ovarian Cancer is labelled as the "silent killer" of women because usually by the time a woman starts to have symptoms the cancer has advanced past the easiest to treat stages.
Awareness of the earliest symptoms is the key to increasing the survival rates of this horrible disease and of catching it early.
The symptoms are generally vague and similar to the symptoms of other more minor illnesses and conditions (Irritable Bowel Syndrome for example).
Ovarian cancer is a cancer that affects the ovaries. In Australia alone it is the 9th most common cancer diagnosis and the 6th most common cause of death affecting women.
So What Is Ovarian Cancer?
There are 3 types of ovarian cancer – the common epithelial type (making up approximately 90% of ovarian cancer cases) that is formed in the cells on the outside of the ovary; the germ cell type that is formed from the cells that produce eggs; and the rare stromal type that forms from the supporting tissues within the ovary itself (where the female hormones are normally produced).
Ovarian cancer can develop on one or both ovaries and cancerous or pre-cancerous cells can still be presentwithin the pelvic cavity even after a full hysterectomy.
Signs and Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer
Ovarian cancer can be very difficult to diagnose in the early stages as there aren’t usually any symptoms, or only very vague symptoms, in the beginning, but the most common symptoms are:
- Abdominal or Pelvic Pain that is abnormal for you.
- Increased abdominal size or persistent bloating that lasts longer than 4 weeks and doesn't generally come and go but stays constant.
- The need to urinate more often or urgently (a similar type of need to go as many women get when they are pregnant or have a UTI, if you aren't pregnant and don't have a UTI it can be a concern).
- Feeling full after eating only a small amount or a very noticeable reduction in how much you would normally eat with no other explanation for it).
Other symptoms that have been reported are:
· Fatigue that doesn't go away even with adequate rest.
· Menstrual irregularities (eg abnormal spotting in between periods, periods that last longer than normal and are heavier than normal, the development of sudden irregular menstrual cycles that are abnormal to you and aren't related to menopause or being perimenopausal, the sudden development of random bleeds/spotting if you are post menopausal etc).
· Abnormal back pain that can't be explained or isn't related to a pre-existing condition.
Constipation or diarrhea or other sudden changes in your bowel habits that isn't normal for you and can't be explained by something else.
· Pain during sexual intercourse.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Ovarian Cancer
If you are experiencing possible symptoms of ovarian cancer and are seeing a medical professional about it your doctor may suggest several tests or scans to look for cysts, tumours or other changes.
This may include the following:
- Physical examination in which the doctor will check your abdomen for any lumps and do an internal vaginal examination
- Blood tests
- Imaging scans
- CT scan
- PET scan
Types of Treatment
Treatment depends on the extent of the cancer. Surgery is used to determine the extent of disease and, if localised to one area, is the main treatment. If the cancer has spread, an attempt is made to remove as much as possible before beginning further treatments.
Chemotherapy, is commonly used after surgery to try to eliminate all disease identified by scan and CA125 blood test. Chemotherapy can be injected into the bloodstream through the vein or instilled into the abdominal cavity or both.
With widespread disease, chemotherapy may be used first. Surgery after chemotherapy can assess response. Germ cell tumours can be cured with chemotherapy.
Treatment teamDepending on your treatment you will be seen by several specialists, for example:
- Gynaecological oncologist who specialises in treating women with cancers of the reproductive system
- Medical oncologist who prescribes the course of chemotherapy
- Radiation oncologist who prescribes the course of radiotherapy
- Radiologist who is trained to interpret diagnostic scans
- Cancer nurses
- Other health professionals such as dietitian, physiotherapist, social worker and counsellor.
When do I seek Help?
Ovarian Cancer Australia says not to worry too much initially if you have 1 or more of these symptoms but to just be aware of any changes and to see your GP if they last longer than 4 weeks or for 4 or more menstrual cycles to first rule out more common and minor causes which are much more likely.
If you are unhappy with your GPs diagnosis or don't feel that it is the right diagnosis don't hesitate to get a second opinion and a referral to a gynecologist (Ovarian Cancer Australia has an easy to use symptom diary on their website that you can download for free to record any worrying or concerning symptoms for a record to show your GP or just for your own peace of mind).
If the symptoms start to impact on your relationships, life in general, your sexual activities, your health, if you have suddenly lost a large amount of weight in a short amount of time or have suddenly worsened with no warning please go to your doctor ASAP to arrange for an assessment with an appropriate specialist.