Ovarian cancer – coping with symptoms and side effects of treatment

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This March is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. Here’s a Live Better With guide to what can help when you are having treatment for ovarian cancer, including chemotherapy and drug treatment…

Every week, more than 140 women in the UK are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, although the average GP will see only one case every five years. Symptoms can be hard to spot, which means that, for many women, diagnosis comes when the cancer has spread.

But, as with many other types of cancer, the earlier the diagnosis, the greater the survival rate. At present, diagnosis in the UK tends to be made later rather than sooner, so treatment is likely to be more invasive, with more and often gruelling side effects. The need for earlier diagnosis, raised awareness, and improved survival rates underpins Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, which is backed by the UK’s leading ovarian cancer charities and runs throughout March every year.

We’ve put together some information and recommendations, plus links to relevant guides, products and blog posts on the Live Better With website, which could help if you or someone you know is being treated for ovarian cancer or is about to start treatment.

How is ovarian cancer treated?

This depends on what stage the cancer has reached when you are diagnosed but, for most women, treatment consists of surgery – to remove the ovaries and fallopian tubes, the womb (hysterectomy), and a fatter layer of stomach tissue (the omentum), followed by chemotherapy. You might also have drug treatment. Although radiotherapy is used to treat many types of cancer, it is rarely used for ovarian cancer in the UK.

 

What side effects can I expect during treatment for ovarian cancer?

Surgery

Before you leave hospital, you’ll be given advice on after care. As with any major surgery it’s important to rest as much as you can, especially in the early days after your operation, while rebuilding your strength gradually, becoming a little more active every day.

  • Difficulty sleeping – insomnia is a common problem after surgery, so try using a sleep balm, a sleep mask, ear plugs, or lavender oil in a diffuser or sprinkled onto your pillow. You’ll find a range of recommended Live Better With products to help you sleep soundly here.
  • Difficulty showering or bathing – it’s important to minimize the risk of post-surgical infection so keeping clean is vital. But that can be a challenge after surgery and you may not be able to your usual soap or shower gel. Our recommended products include an anti-microbial towel-off body wash, long-handled sponges and showering aids.

You’ll find the complete range of Live Better With recommended post-surgery products here.

Do read: our blog post Living better after cancer surgery – tips for a quicker recovery.

 

Chemotherapy

Although not everyone having chemotherapy will have side effects from their treatment, most people having chemotherapy will experience or more of the following symptoms:

  • Tiredness – ask if it is possible to schedule your chemotherapy appointments for a Thursday or Friday, especially if you are working, to give yourself the weekend to recover. We have an excellent range of products, from meal replacements to light exercise equipment to help you deal with fatigue.

Do read: our guide to Cancer Fatigue.

  • Nausea and sickness – among the commonest side effects of chemotherapy but simple proven remedies, such as ginger or peppermint in various forms, or wearing  anti-nausea wristbands can help. Live Better With offers a wide range of recommended products to tackle nausea and sickness.
  • Loss of appetite – apart from simply not feeling like eating, your appetite may be affected by a sore, dry mouth, difficulty swallowing, or a strange taste. However, it’s important to try to eat as well as you can during chemotherapy to keep up your strength and energy and to support your general health. The Live Better With online shop carries a wide variety of products and books to help with whatever is preventing you from enjoying your food. These range from natural toothpaste, to help with a sore mouth, to blenders, for making tasty, easily digestible soups and smoothies.

Do read: The Live Better with Guide to Cancer and Eating Well.

Do read: The Live Better With Guide to Cancer and Hair Loss.

 

  • Diarrhoea (frequent, loose stools) – drink up to two litres of fluid a day to replace lost fluid due to diarrhoea; avoid alcohol and coffee as they are diuretics (they cause more fluid to leave your body), and eat small, frequent meals that are made from light foods.

Do contact your GP if you have: diarrhoea for more than two days, diarrhoea with a fever, or diarrhoea with severe and continuing pain in your abdomen or rectum.

  • Increased risk of infection – a healthy immune system is your first line of defence against infection but chemotherapy takes its toll on your immunity to infection. Try to do whatever you can to support your general health and your immune system – eating as well as possible, keeping as active as you can, and getting the sleep you need. Our tips for help with showering or bathing (see above) apply here too.

 

Radiotherapy

As we mentioned, radiotherapy is now rarely used in the UK to treat ovarian cancer. If, however, your treatment does include radiotherapy, you’ll find The Live Better With Guide to Radiotherapy very helpful as it explains what side effects you might experience and what can help.

 

Drug treatment

If you are on a particular drug regime or clinical trial as part of your treatment for ovarian cancer, your oncologist or specialist cancer nurse will have advised you about potential side effects. We’re all different so you may react to a particular drug in a different way from someone else, even if you are both being treated for the same type of ovarian cancer.

If you are worried about any side effects that you are experiencing with drug treatment, do check with your specialist cancer nurse or your GP. The Live Better With community forum and Facebook group* include members who are being treated for ovarian cancer and who regularly share their experiences and concerns, as well as tips on what has helped them. Being diagnosed with and treated for ovarian cancer is daunting and, at times, overwhelming but the reassurance and support that members give each other can be very helpful, especially if you feel that you are struggling on your own. It is sometimes easier to share your feelings with supportive, understanding strangers rather than with your loved ones. Our instinct is often to protect those closest to us, so we don’t always tell them when we find the going is tough.

‘In total remission since 2016 for ovarian cancer, stage 3, limited to pelvis. I can understand what you are going through, I was the same. . . Every time I was writing here and received so many encouraging messages that helped me a lot.’ Member, Live Better With Cancer: Coping With Side Effects Facebook group

 

Where can I find out more about ovarian cancer?

To find out more about ovarian cancer symptoms, diagnosis, research and current types of treatment, support and fundraising, visit these specialist cancer charities:

Ovacome Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian Cancer Action

Target Ovarian Cancer

The Eve Appeal

also:

Macmillan Cancer Support

Cancer Research UK

 

Visit the Live Better With Cancer Community Forum or our Facebook group – for information, advice, and tips and to share your own questions and suggestions.

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