As the name makes clear, ovarian cancer affects the ovaries, those delicate but vital organs which produce ova – female reproductive cells – for possible fertilisation in the earliest stages of pregnancy. As with other tumours, the symptoms of ovarian cancer can be unpleasant. Typically they include:
- Loss of appetite
- Bloating and swelling
- Pain in the pelvis
These symptoms can worsen over time as cancerous cells spread into different areas of the body. The longer the disease progresses, the harder it becomes to treat, so catching cancer at an early stage is ideal and really can save lives.
How ovarian cancer is diagnosed
Ovarian cancer is typically diagnosed via a combination of physical examination, blood testing and ultrasound readings.
Physical examination of the abdomen and other parts of the body is used to try and detect the presence of abnormal lumps or masses, as well as fluid build-up, which is another potential red flag. On average, around one fifth of growths in the region of the ovaries tend to be malignant in nature and so pose a serious risk.
Ultrasound readings involve the use of high frequency sounds generated by a medical scanning device to assess internal organs.
Surgery is often carried out for a definitive diagnosis of ovarian cancer: doctors conduct a close-up examination of affected areas and usually also take tissue samples for analysis or a biopsy. If a tumour is detected, a computed tomography (CT) scan or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan may be deployed to assess its size and position.
On occasion doctors also deploy X-rays to search for the possible spread of cancerous growths to other regions of the body as well as abnormal fluid build-up.
Blood tests for ovarian cancer
Doctors perform a variety of blood tests for ovarian cancer. As cancerous cells develop into tumours, the levels of certain enzymes, proteins, cells and molecules within our bloodstreams will change in measurable ways.
What these blood tests can reveal
Blood tests for ovarian cancer are designed to detect:
- Biomarkers: levels of these biological substances can increase or decrease within a patient’s bloodstream as particular diseases develop. Those which may indicate cancerous growth are also called ‘tumour markers’. Examples include the proteins CA-125 and alpha-fetoprotein and the enzymes neuron-specific enolase and lactate dehydrogenase. CA-125 can indicate the presence of the disease once it progresses beyond the earliest stages, while the latter three can provide an effective indicator of the types of ovarian cancer which typically develop in younger women.
- Blood platelet and electrolyte levels: when ovarian cancer develops, platelet levels typically increase while electrolyte levels fall. Platelets are those blood cells responsible for forming clots in response to bleeding. Electrolytes, meanwhile, conduct electrically charged ions around the body – major electrolytes in the human body include the minerals sodium and magnesium.
What else can you learn from a blood screening test?
Total blood screening tests offer a detailed assessment of the blood levels of multiple biomarkers and other substances. This can provide a detailed picture of your current state of health. You could learn, for example:
- Whether your liver is functioning correctly.
- Whether your kidneys are in good shape.
- Any inflammation that may have developed.
- Your vitamin D levels.
- Your vitamin B12 levels.
- Whether you have any detectable risk factors for diabetes.
Do note, however, that for the most accurate results, you will need to fast for a period of time beforehand, as some foods and drinks can affect biomarker levels. But such information can be genuinely empowering, allowing you to optimise your diet and take positive steps to improve your health. You can learn more about our blood screening tests here.
Medically reviewed by Sian Baker, Dip ION mBANT mCNHC – Written by Beth Giddings (BSc)
Updated on 1st December 2021