Quiz answers: The facts about gynae cancers

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Do you know the myths from the facts?

Empower yourself with knowledge by reading the extended answers for our gynae cancer quiz.

How big is the average ovary?

The ovaries are two, walnut-sized glands that are found on either side of the uterus.  They have two main functions:

  • to produce, store, and release eggs for reproduction

  • to produce the hormones oestrogen, progesterone, and testosterone

Myth or fact: Cervical screening (a smear test) can be used to test for ovarian cancer?

Myth! It is a common misconception that a cervical smear test can detect ovarian cancer. But that is not true. A cervical smear test is used to check for certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a very common virus but some types can cause changes to the cells of your cervix.  

Cervical screening gives us a chance to spot these types of HPV, and if one of these is found, the sample is then checked for any changes in the cells of your cervix. These can then be treated before they get a chance to turn into cervical cancer.

Myth/fact: If I’ve had a hysterectomy I can’t get ovarian cancer

This is false. It's a common myth that if you've had a hysterectomy, you can't get ovarian cancer. There's different types of hysterectomy. For example a bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy (sal-PIN-goh-oh-oh-foh-REK-toh-mee) is the surgical removal of both your ovaries and fallopian tubes. A hysterectomy (HIS-teh-REK-toh-mee) is a surgery to remove your uterus (womb) this is done in ovarian sparing way because keeping your ovaries when you have a hysterectomy will prevent you from going immediately into the menopause, and there are some benefits of retaining your ovaries and having ongoing production, but if you've had a hysterectomy, but you've kept your own ovaries. Remember, you can still develop ovarian cancer, any stage, so you still need to be really aware of the symptoms and speak to your doctor if you need to.

There are different types of hysterectomy but all involve removing the uterus (womb). Whether other parts of the reproductive system (fallopian tubes, ovaries, cervix) or other surrounding tissues are removed depends on the reason for the surgery. 

There are several reasons why someone would have these surgeries, including to reduce the risk of cancer if you carry a high-risk gene mutation like BRCA1/2 or Lynch syndrome.

Myth or fact: You can use a home pregnancy test to detect ovarian cancer

False,  a home pregnancy test is in no way a valid or reliable route to diagnosing ovarian cancer. 

Sometimes people experience symptoms that lead them to think they might be pregnant, like being tired, an expanding waistline, feeling bloated, weeing more often, and are then surprised to learn they have ovarian cancer. 

There have been some very rare occasions where ovarian cancer has caused a false positive to occur on a pregnancy test. During the early stages of pregnancy a woman’s body produces increased levels of a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), which will be detected by the more sensitive home tests and produce a positive result. 

An increased level of hCG may also sometimes be seen in a woman who has an early stage of the  rare form of ovarian cancer called germ cell, so there is a chance that if someone with this type of cancer does a pregnancy test, a positive result will be produced.

A home pregnancy test is in no way a valid or reliable route to diagnosing ovarian cancer. The incidences of a positive result being due to ovarian cancer, as opposed to an actual pregnancy, are incredibly small. 

Find out more here.

Which of these has a screening programme?

The only one of these five gynae cancers (Cervical cancer, Ovarian cancer, Vaginal cancer, Vulval cancer and Womb cancer)that has a reliable screening tool is cervical cancer. We know that cervical screening helps prevent cervical cancer and saves thousands of lives every year in the UK.

It’s important to know that smear tests do not screen for signs of any of these other cancers, so it’s really important that any symptoms you experience are investigated, even if you’ve just had a normal smear result.  

Ovarian cancer screening:

Although you may have heard of the blood test for a protein called CA125 being used as part of diagnosing ovarian cancer, it is not reliable enough to be used as a screening tool. It has been found to show false positives (raised levels for reasons other than cancer, like being on your period, due to endometriosis, or even because of pregnancy) and also false negatives (some women have ovarian cancer and never have a raised CA125). 

This is why Ovarian Cancer Action researchers are working hard to find new ways to spot early signs of ovarian cancer, and save lives. Professor Ahmed Ahmed and his team are currently investigating how biological markers, like the protein called SOX2 that they discovered in the fallopian tubes of women with or at risk of ovarian cancer, could be used to develop a screening tool. 

Find out more about the work we're carrying out to create the world's first ovarian cancer screening tool.

Men can carry BRCA gene alterations

True! BRCA gene alterations can be carried and passed down by both men and women. 

Men’s risk of certain cancers is also increased if they carry one of these gene alterations, for example did you know that men with a BRCA2 gene alteration have an increased risk of breast and prostate cancer?

Men and women are also equally as likely to carry or inherit a Lynch syndrome mutation.

Find out more here.

A BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene alteration puts you at increased risk of which cancers?

An BRCA alteration increases you risk of developing the following types of cancers:

  • Ovarian cancer

  • Breast cancer (men and women can get breast cancer)

  • Pancreatic cancer

  • Prostate cancer

The impacts of spelling mistakes or alterations (also known as mutations) in the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 were discovered by researching the patterns of breast cancer found in some families, and the genes were named BRCA as an abbreviation for “BReast CAncer gene”. As research continued, it was found that spelling errors in these genes also significantly increase a person’s risk of ovarian cancer, prostate cancer and to a lesser extent pancreatic cancer. It’s common for people to think they only need to worry about breast cancer when looking into their family history, but that’s far from the truth.

The other types of cancer on the list can also be linked to hereditary gene faults (meaning passed down in families), that are known as Lynch syndrome. Don’t be surprised if you’ve not heard of this! In a recent survey, we found 84% of people have never heard of Lynch syndrome, which is a group of gene alterations that significantly increase a person’s risk of several types of cancer including colorectal (bowel),  ovarian, uterine (womb), stomach and some others.  

Fund out more about BRCA gene alterations here.

What age range has the highest rates of ovarian cancer diagnosis?

Ovarian cancer incidence is strongly related to age, with 82% of UK ovarian cancer cases being diagnosed in women over the age of 50.

The highest incidence rates are in the 75 to 79 age group.

Ovarian cancer is diagnosed in younger women too, and every year over 1300 women under the age of 50 will be diagnosed. Whatever your age, you should take notice of any symptoms and speak to your GP. 

Find out more here.

What are the main symptoms of ovarian cancer?

Although ovarian cancer does have four main symptoms:

  • Persistent stomach pain

  • Persistent bloating

  • Difficulty eating/feeling full more quickly

  • Needing to wee more frequently

Ovarian cancer symptoms might also include: back pain, changes in bowel habits (going more often or a lot less), and extreme tiredness for no obvious reason. 

Through the scientific research that our team does, we continue to learn more about this disease. 

If you are experiencing any of the four possible symptoms of ovarian cancer – persistent bloating, persistent stomach pain, difficulty eating or feeling full more quickly, and needing to wee more urgently or frequently – then you should make an appointment with your GP. 

Find out more here.

This gynae cancer awareness month and beyond, how are you going to help empower people with gynae cancer information?