Incontinence and Ovarian Cancer: Knowing the Signs Can Save Your Life

Incontinence can occur alongside ovarian cancer in some cases. This article dives into the link and other symptoms to look out for that are common for ovarian cancer diagnoses.

Incontinence and Ovarian Cancer: Knowing the Signs Can Save Your Life

Incontinence can occur alongside ovarian cancer in some cases. This article dives into the link and other symptoms to look out for that are common for ovarian cancer diagnoses.

Every year in Australia, around 1,800 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Unfortunately, there is still no cure nor is a known cause. 

This is why early detection is so crucial. If a woman is diagnosed at Stage 1 of ovarian cancer (while it is localised), her survival rate is over 90 per cent. More on the stages of ovarian cancer shortly. 

Here at ConfidenceClub, we want to help in educating women on the risk factors and symptoms of ovarian cancer so that more can detect it sooner and survive.

What is ovarian cancer?

According to the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation (OCRF), ovarian cancer is the growth of malignant cells in one or both ovaries. These cells can also spread to organs in the abdomen and pelvis.

Epithelial ovarian cancers are the most common and make up 90 per cent of cases and largely affect women over the age of 60. This type of ovarian cancer begins on the surface level of the ovary - and also includes fallopian tube cancers and primary peritoneal cancer.

Germ cell tumours affect the ovarian cells that would normally develop into eggs, and usually affect women under the age of 40. This form of ovarian cancer makes up about 5 per cent of cases.

Stromal cell tumours or sex cord-stromal tumours are less common types of ovarian cancer that affect the ovary’s hormone-producing cells. These types of tumours affect women between 40 and 60 years of age.

There are four stages of ovarian cancer.

Stage 1 - Cancer is confined to one or both ovaries.
Stage 2 - Cancer has spread to the uterus or other nearby organs.
Stage 3 - Cancer has spread to the lymph nodes or abdominal lining.
Stage 4 - Cancer has spread to distant organs, such as the lungs or liver.

You can find more information on each stage of ovarian cancer here.

Sadly, around 70 per cent of all Australian ovarian cancer cases are diagnosed in stages 3 and 4. This contributes to the low survival rate of just 46 per cent.

Ovarian cancer risk factors

Although as mentioned there isn’t an exact cause of ovarian cancer, there are certain risk factors that can predispose women to the disease.

These can include:

  • Ageing is one of the biggest risk factors for ovarian cancer

  • Family history of ovarian, breast and other cancers

  • Inheriting a gene mutation such as BRCA1 or BRCA2 [1]. This is particularly common in Ashkenazi Jewish women

  • Having endometriosis, diabetes or breast cancer

  • Long-term use of hormone replacement therapy

  • Smoking

  • Being overweight/obese

  • Not having had children

What do ovarian cancer symptoms look like?

Ovarian cancer symptoms can often be vague or misdiagnosed as common female-specific complaints such as bloating and abdominal cramps.

This needs to change because when things are ‘brushed off’ as something common or non-threatening without further investigation, that is when ovarian cancer can intensify, spread and reduce the survival rate. So if you don’t feel comfortable with your diagnosis from a doctor, or lack-of, always seek another medical opinion.

Educating yourself on the symptoms that can be related to ovarian cancer is crucial for early detection.

Symptoms of ovarian cancer include:

  • The feeling of abdominal fullness/bloating, gas, nausea and indigestion

  • Sudden weight loss or weight gain

  • Low backache or cramps

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding - this could be between periods and/or after sexual intercourse

  • Irregular periods

  • Pain during intercourse

  • Excessive fatigue

  • Persistent change in bowel and bladder habits

On that last point, urinary incontinence can be a symptom of ovarian cancer.

In some cases, urinary incontinence can occur when the tumour presses on the bladder and causes increased abdominal pressure, prompting involuntary urine leaks or loss.

One study of 107 women with ovarian cancer found that urinary incontinence, urgency and/or frequency were some of the most common symptoms in the diagnosis of stage one or two of ovarian cancer [2]. The incontinence also tended to worsen within a short period of two to three weeks. This differs from developing incontinence without ovarian cancer, which happens more gradually.

Can ovarian cancer cause incontinence?

Incontinence can also occur following an ovarian cancer diagnosis.

Treatments for ovarian cancer, such as surgery, chemotherapy and medications, may cause or aggravate incontinence.

For example:

  • Pelvic surgery can damage muscles and/or nerves that control urination

  • Chemotherapy can cause vomiting which may strain the pelvic floor muscles and loss of hormones that help keep the bladder and urethra healthy

  • Radiation therapy to the pelvic area can cause bladder irritation and impact continence

  • Some medications increase urine productio

If you are experiencing incontinence, we have a number of high-quality products that cater to different absorbency needs. You can take our Help Me Choose quiz to find out what’s best suited to you, or call our helpful team of product specialists on 0800 088 5955 to discuss what will work best for you.

You can also view our full range of products here.

How is ovarian cancer diagnosed?

If you experience any of above-mentioned symptoms for more than two weeks, visit your doctor and explain to them you’d like to rule out the possibility of ovarian cancer.

They will ask you questions regarding your personal symptoms, your past health history and your family health history.

A pelvic examination of your vulva, vagina and cervix should also take place.

If no other cause can be determined based on your symptoms and there is a likelihood of ovarian cancer, your doctor should give you a referral for a transvaginal ultrasound (internal ultrasound done via the vagina). This can help identify any abnormalities in the pelvis and abdomen. Other imaging tests such as a CT scan can also be recommended by a doctor to check for cancer and abnormal tissue.

A tissue biopsy is what is required to fully diagnose ovarian cancer. This can be done guided by an ultrasound or CT, or with surgery. The sample is then sent to pathology where it will be analysed.

There is a blood test available called a CA-125 which identifies tumour markers, but this isn’t 100% reliable for a diagnosis. In fact, the Cancer Council report that half of all women with early stage ovarian cancer do not have elevated CA-125 levels.

If your overall assessment is suggestive of ovarian cancer, request a referral to a gynaecological oncologist, as they specialise in treating ovarian cancer. It has been shown that women treated by a gynaecological oncologist have better outcomes [3].

Ovarian cancer treatment options

If you are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, your treatment plan will vary depending on what stage of ovarian cancer you have and other personal health factors.

However, treatment can include:

  • Surgery - this will remove some or all of the reproductive organs depending on the severity and spread of the ovarian cancer

  • Chemotherapy - use of drugs called cytotoxics to kill or slow the growth of cancer cells

  • Targeted therapy - a drug treatment that targets specific parts of cancer cells to stop tits growth and spread

  • Radiation therapy - high-energy X-ray beams that aim to kill or damage cancer cells so they can’t grow, multiply or spread

  • Palliative treatment - this aims to improve the patient’s quality of life by managing the symptoms of ovarian cancer without trying to cure it

We hope this article has given you some further insight into ovarian cancer symptoms, diagnosis and treatment. Knowledge is power when it comes to diseases such as this. And remember, if you are ever concerned about any symptoms you’re experiencing, always seek advice and treatment from your doctor.

Citations

1 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK1247/

2 - Yawn BP, Barrette BA, Wollan PC. Ovarian cancer: the neglected diagnosis. Mayo Clin Proc. 2004;79(10):1277-1282. doi:10.4065/79.10.1277.

3 - https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17433422/ 

 

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