By Lisa Powell, Corporate Nutritional Therapist
Ovarian cancer accounts for 35 percent of all gynaecological cancers in the UK, making it the fifth most common cancer among women after breast, lung, bowel and womb cancer. Early diagnosis doubles survival rates beyond 5 years to over 90 percent. But sadly, many cases are diagnosed too late because early symptoms are often vague and dismissed as nothing serious. Campaigns such as ‘Start Making Noise’ and ‘World Ovarian Cancer Day’ aim to increase awareness and get more cases diagnosed earlier.
So what is ovarian cancer?
Ovarian cancer develops in the ovaries and, like other cancers, is the result of abnormal cell growth. In most cases the cause is unknown, with only a small percentage of cases being due to an inherited faulty gene. Around 90 percent of ovarian cancers are attributed to changes that occur to a woman’s genes over time and this is where environmental factors can come into play.
What are the symptoms?
- Frequent and persistent pelvic or abdominal pain
- Persistent bloating that isn’t associated with a particular food
- Feeling full quickly when eating
- Increased need to wee
Many of these symptoms will be familiar and experiencing one or more of them won’t necessarily mean you have ovarian cancer. However if the symptoms are new, severe and occur most days for 3 weeks or more, then check with your GP.
What are the risk factors for ovarian cancer?
While the exact cause of ovarian cancer remains unknown certain risk factors have been identified.
Smoking: Around 3 percent of ovarian cancers are linked to cigarette smoking.
Being overweight: Women with a BMI of over 30 have a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer. The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) suggests around 1 in 25 cases of ovarian cancer could be prevented by maintaining a healthy weight.
Age: the risk of ovarian cancer increases with age, with most cases occurring in post-menopausal women over the age of 50
Family history: Around ten percent of ovarian cancers are caused by an inherited faulty gene, most commonly BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. If you have two or more close relatives (mother, sister or daughter) with ovarian or breast cancer it may place you at higher risk. If those relatives were under 50 when they developed cancer it may be due to an inherited gene. Tests can check for these faulty genes, and you should consult your GP if you feel at risk.
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Less than 1 percent of ovarian cancers in the UK are linked to taking HRT.
Exposure to oestrogens: Ovarian cancer is also associated with exposure to oestrogens. It is thought that the number of ovulations experienced by a woman throughout her lifetime may be a contributing factor. Having more children, breastfeeding, or taking oral contraceptives all decrease ovulations, and therefore oestrogens, and as such are linked with lower incidences of this type of cancer.
So how can you minimise risk factors?
While some of these factors are beyond our control, there is still much we can do to minimise risk factors. And given the majority of ovarian cancers are not inherited, it is vital we do all we can to protect our genes from external influences.
Achieving a healthy weight – Aim to achieve a BMI in the normal range (18.5-25).
Reduce inflammation. Chronic inflammation is seen as a contributing factor in the development of all cancers. Dietary strategies for reducing inflammation include reducing sugar and increasing omega 3 essential fatty acids (EFAs) in the form of oily fish or pumpkin, flax, chia or hemp seeds. One of the most valuable anti-inflammatory foods are fruit and vegetables and spices such as curcumin, garlic and ginger. These contain a vast array of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds such as phytonutrients.
The best way to maximize your phytonutrient intake is by making sure you are eating a rainbow of vegetables and fruit daily. I advise clients to aim for 7 servings of vegetables per day, and up to 2 servings of fruit daily.
Vitamin D. Studies suggest a possible link between low vitamin D levels and an increased incidence of cancer. Vitamin D is also thought to slow the development of cancer. Most of our vitamin D comes from sunlight, but in the UK the sun isn’t strong enough between the months of October and March to generate vitamin D. Many of us are therefore deficient in this important vitamin and it is worthwhile considering supplementing during the winter months.
Minimise exposure to environmental toxins. Toxins found in cleaning products and cosmetics, as well as herbicides, pesticides and plastics containing BPAs are all xenoestrogens, which contribute to the body’s overall oestrogen load and are therefore best avoided.
The important take away from the above is that lifestyle factors can influence your risk factors for ovarian cancer. And most importantly, if you have any concerns about the symptoms highlighted above, you should visit your GP.
About Lisa Powell, Associate and Registered Nutritional Therapist
Lisa is a qualified nutritional therapist, having graduated from The Institute for Optimum Nutrition in London. She is a member of the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT), the regulatory body for nutritional therapists, and a member of the Complimentary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC). In private practice Lisa has a special interest in women’s health and is passionate about healthy eating, and the impact food has on our heath and wellbeing.
(1) Cancer Research UK (2014), Ovarian Cancer Risks and Causes, available at: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/type/ovarian-cancer/about/ovarian-cancer-risks-and-causes Accessed: 12th March 2016.
(2) Hardman WE. Diet components can suppress inflammation and reduce cancer risk. Nutrition Research and Practice. 2014;8(3):233-240. doi:10.4162/nrp.2014.8.3.233. Accessed: 14th March, 2016.
(3) National Cancer Institute (2013) Vitamin D and Cancer Prevention available at http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/diet/vitamin-d-fact-sheet. Accessed: 15th March, 2016.