Ovarian cancer and weight gain: What's the link?
Ovarian cancer begins when cells in the ovaries or the fallopian tubes start to grow in an uncontrolled way and eventually spread to other parts of the body. Unfortunately, people often only detect the disease in advanced stages, when it has spread and is harder to treat.
According to the American Cancer Society, doctors only detect some 20 percent of ovarian cancer cases in their early stages. However, around 94 percent of people live longer than 5 years after diagnosis when doctors detect cancer in its early stages.
In this article, we look at the connection between ovarian cancer and weight gain, treatment options, and tips for controlling weight.
Symptoms of ovarian cancer
Symptoms of ovarian cancer can include bloating, abdominal pain, and a frequent urge to urinate.
People with ovarian cancer in the early stages may have no symptoms. Symptoms are more likely to appear when the cancer is in an advanced stage. However, symptoms can be unspecific and mistaken for those caused by other conditions.
Common signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer include:
- abdominal swelling or bloating
- feeling quickly full when eating
- abdominal or pelvic pain and discomfort
- frequent and urgent need to urinate
Other signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer can include:
- changes in bowel habits, such as constipation weight loss
- unexplained fatigue
- upset stomach
- changes to menstruation, such as heavier or irregular bleeding
What can cause weight gain in people with ovarian cancer and is it normal?
Some people with ovarian cancer may gain weight due to cancer treatments.
Cancer treatments that may cause weight gain include hormone therapy or chemotherapy.
Certain cancer drugs make the body retain an excessive amount of water, which may also be responsible for weight gain.
People with ovarian cancer may also gain weight as a result of eating more and exercising less.
Some people overeat because they feel anxious or stressed while others do so because they feel less nauseated from cancer treatments with a full stomach.
Weight gain associated with ovarian cancer is not unique to just this type of cancer. Weight gain for similar reasons may also occur with other forms of the disease, such as breast cancer and prostate cancer.
When to see a doctor
People should see a doctor when they have signs or symptoms similar to those of ovarian cancer that have no other obvious cause.
They should also see a doctor if they have close relatives with ovarian or breast cancer, as this may indicate they have a higher risk of developing these cancers. A doctor may recommend a genetic counseling appointment to look for gene mutations that increase the risk of these types of cancers.
Doctors use different types of treatment for ovarian cancer, depending on its type and how far it has spread. Usually, local and systemic treatments are the two main treatment approaches that doctors can use.
Surgery is the main treatment for most types of ovarian cancer.
Surgery is the primary treatment for the majority of ovarian cancers. The extent of an operation will depend on how far cancer has spread and the person's overall health.
If the cancer is in an early stage and has not spread beyond one ovary, a surgeon may remove the affected ovary and its fallopian tube.
If cancer affects both ovaries but has not spread beyond them, the surgeon will remove both ovaries and their fallopian tubes.
This localized surgery preserves the womb, so the person will still be able to become pregnant using frozen eggs or embryos.
If the cancer has spread or is likely to do so, the surgeon may carry out a total abdominal hysterectomy to remove both ovaries, the fallopian tubes, the womb, and nearby lymph glands.
If the cancer is in advanced stages, the doctor may also recommend chemotherapy before surgery to reduce the cancer size.
This type of treatment uses high-energy X-rays or other forms of energy to kill cancer cells.
Doctors usually deliver radiation therapy using a machine outside the body, in a process known as external-beam radiation therapy.
They can also place radioactive material inside the body near the tumor in a procedure called brachytherapy.
Radiation therapy can treat areas where cancer has spread, either near the tumor or in organs elsewhere in the body.
Systemic treatments are drugs that pass through bloodstream to treat cancer cells wherever they may be in the body. Doctors can deliver these drugs in oral form or put them directly into the bloodstream.
Chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, and targeted therapy are systemic treatments usually used to treat ovarian cancer.
This treatment consists of using drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing them or by stopping them from dividing. People can take chemotherapy drugs either by mouth or through injection into a vein or muscle.
Doctors may use chemotherapy before surgery, to shrink large tumors and make surgery easier, or after surgery to kill any cancer cells that may remain.
This therapy involves hormones or hormone-blocking drugs to fight cancer. As some cancers rely on hormones to fuel their growth, drugs that block or stop this action can potentially help to fight them.
Doctors may suggest hormone therapy to treat a specific type of ovarian cancer known as ovarian stromal cancer. Examples of hormonal therapies that doctors may use for this type of cancer include:
- luteinizing-hormone-releasing hormone (LHRH) agonists, such as goserelin and leuprolide
- aromatase inhibitors
This treatment uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells without harming healthy cells. In ovarian cancer, doctors usually use targeted therapy to treat tumors that return after initial treatment or tumors that are resistant to other treatments.
Examples of targeted therapies for ovarian cancer include:
- PARP inhibitors, such as olaparib, rucaparib, and niraparib
Tips for combating weight gain during ovarian cancer
Restricting food portion sizes can help to combat weight gain.
If weight gain is a concern, people with ovarian cancer can take a few actions to fight back. These steps include:
- adopting a low-calorie diet
- restricting the amount of salt in food, as it may cause water retention
- limiting the intake of high-sugar foods
- preparing foods with low-fat, low-calorie cooking techniques, such as grilling and steaming
- restricting food portion sizes
- choosing poultry or fish over red meat
- including beans, grains, and peas in the diet
- favoring whole-grain bread, pasta, and cereals over refined grains
- favoring brown instead of white rice
- eating vegetables, greens, and whole fruit
- avoiding fats, such as butter and mayonnaise, and choosing low-fat dairy products
- reading food labels carefully, paying attention to calories
- walking and exercising regularly, and including activities that help to relieve stress
People with ovarian cancer can seek advice from a registered dietitian, who their cancer care team can recommend. Dietitians should be able to suggest a healthful food plan with limited high-calorie foods that they design for the individual's needs.
Members of a person's cancer care team will also be able to make recommendations on what are appropriate levels of exercise.