by Georgina Tharp
Last year, scientific discoveries from the University of Oxford gave fresh hope for the management of ovarian cancer. But women still need to be on the alert.
Ovarian cancer is the deadliest female cancer, killing more women each year than all the other gynaecological cancers combined.
Last year, researchers at the University of Oxford discovered a protein that could help detect ovarian cancer early, and identified an enzyme that allows the cancer to spread. These findings, published in EBioMedicine and Cancer Cell respectively, highlighted potential ways to manage the disease.
The discoveries and their significance
Researchers at the University of Oxford found that a protein called SOX2 is present at high levels in the fallopian tubes of women with ovarian cancer and also those who are at increased risk of developing the disease.
Professor Ahmed, from Oxford University’s MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, said:
“A test for SOX2 could not only help detect cancers early but in some cases would enable us to detect a tumour before it becomes cancerous.”
Why is this important? Early detection is quite literally vital where ovarian cancer is concerned. The earlier a woman is treated, the better her chances of survival are. You have a 90% chance of surviving five years if diagnosed in the early stages of the disease, but this drops to 22% if diagnosed in the later stages.
The second finding from the Institute was the identification of SIK2, an enzyme that facilitates the spread of cancer throughout the abdomen.
Why is this important? If this enzyme is halted then the cancer’s ability to metastasize and become more deadly is reduced. According to Professor Ahmed:
“SIK2 is an important target for future treatments because it provides cancer cells with energy and also drives their increase in number.Our experiments showed that suppressing SIK2 disrupted these pathways, which in the human body would reduce the possibility of cancer cells spreading and ‘coming back’.”
The two discoveries open up several promising avenues of scientific enquiry.
However, there is still much work to be done before these findings translate into new treatments.
What can we do now?
Fresh insights from the scientific community offer new hope but until the results can be fully realised, symptoms awareness and swift action are necessary tools in the present drive to stop women dying from the disease.
March is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, and research charity Ovarian Cancer Action is encouraging women to know the symptoms of ovarian cancer, and to act on them.
1. Know the symptoms
It’s worth repeating: early diagnosis and treatment greatly improves the patient’s chances of survival. However, there are a number of obstacles to making the all-important early diagnosis.
The first is a lack of symptoms awareness. In a recent poll, Ovarian Cancer Action found that 90% of the women couldn’t name the four main symptoms of ovarian cancer.
- Persistent stomach pain
- Persistent bloating
- Needing to pee more frequently
- Finding it difficult to eat, or feeling full very quickly
Everyone experiences these symptoms from time to time. They overlap with many other, less serious conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). However, with ovarian cancer the key is recognising whether these symptoms, and the way in which they occur, are unusual for you. If they persist and worsen, occur frequently, and have started in the past 12 months, it’s a good idea to visit the GP.
Note: a cervical smear will NOT detect ovarian cancer.
2. Take action
The second obstacle to early detection is women’s tendency to prioritise others’ health over their own.
In its poll Ovarian Cancer Action found that it takes 15 days for women to act on their own health – twice as long as it would for them to seek help for a sick pet. While more than two thirds of women asked would act in less than a week for symptoms of breast cancer, less than a quarter would do the same for the symptoms of ovarian cancer.
It is this combination of not knowing the symptoms, and the delay in acting on them, which is proving so dangerous.
Ovarian Cancer Action is calling to change this as it asks the UK to #OvaryAct.
The charity appreciates that women have multiple demands on their time, and a visit to the GP for vague and seemingly innocuous symptoms may not be a priority. However, regardless of the cause, it’s important to get troublesome symptoms checked out.
Katherine Taylor, Chief Executive of Ovarian Cancer Action said:
“As women, we often put the needs of those important to us before our own. But in order to look after others, we have to look after ourselves first. That’s why we need to #OvaryAct.”
Sarah Passby, ovarian cancer survivor, said:
“There are countless times that I have encouraged my children and husband to act on their health concerns and go to the doctor. Looking back, I didn’t prioritise my own health in the same way.
“Having been through ovarian cancer, I’ll do anything to make sure other people are aware of the symptoms and are acting on them if worried.”
Ovarian Cancer Action has developed a symptoms diary to help women record their symptoms. Search ‘Ovarian Cancer Action’ in your phone’s app store, or download a paper version at www.ovarian.org.uk.
Ovarian Cancer Action is the UK’s ovarian cancer charity and its mission is to fund research that saves lives. From funding scientists on the front line, to mobilising millions of people across the UK to take action – Ovarian Cancer Action is driven by a vision for a world without ovarian cancer and a belief that it can create a better future.