Ovarian Cancer

Controlling the symptoms of advanced ovarian cancer

Surgery and chemotherapy aim to destroy the cancer or limit its growth (see 'Surgery' and 'Chemotherapy'). Alongside these treatments patients may also receive treatments to ease or relieve the symptoms. These treatments are not intended to cure or influence the course of the disease but can help maintain quality of life.

A common symptom is an uncomfortable swelling of the abdomen due to a build-up of fluid known as ascites. This fluid will be removed during any surgical operation, but two women we talked to had their ascites drained to relieve the pressure of the swelling while tests were being done to discover the cause of their illness and before any surgery was planned. This was done by inserting a fine tube through the muscle wall of the abdomen (using a local anaesthetic) and slowly draining off the fluid.

A woman who became tired and breathless during chemotherapy was told this was due to a pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in an artery that supplies the lungs), which occurs more commonly in cancer patients. This was successfully treated with the anti-clotting drug warfarin.

Sometimes an ovarian cancer presses on one or both ureters which carry the urine from the kidneys to the bladder and block the flow. A woman described having a tube inserted to drain the urine from her kidney into a bag strapped to her leg.

Pressure from the cancer can also block the intestine. In some cases blockages were successfully cleared with enemas, but one woman who had repeated blockages eventually had an operation to remove the affected part of her bowel, which reduced her appetite and her digestion.

Chemotherapy damages normal blood cells causing some patients to become anaemic, but some women became anaemic for other reasons. One woman received regular blood transfusions; another had had a bad experience with a blood transfusion so was given drug treatment to boost her red blood cells.

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A couple of women we talked to developed pleural effusions (a build-up of fluid around the lungs), which causes breathlessness and chest pain. This was initially treated by draining the fluid through a small tube attached to a syringe. When the problem recurred, a drug that sticks together the membranes lining the cavity was injected via the drainage tube, so preventing fluid from building up there. One of the women needed this done on her other lung too, and also, unusually, fluid draining from the cavity around the heart (pericardial effusion). Unfortunately that caused her heart to stop, but it was soon restarted.

Some people with cancer get pain. The causes of cancer pain are now well understood and it can be effectively controlled. One woman whose cancer recurred, and did not respond well to chemotherapy, talked about having recently been prescribed morphine for her pain.

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Last reviewed June 2016.

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