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World Ovarian Cancer Day: Know the Signs

To coincide with World Ovarian Cancer Day, we spoke to Dr Sharon O’Toole, a Senior Research Fellow who is researching ovarian cancer in Trinity College Dublin. Dr O’Toole coordinates the national awareness campaign for ovarian cancer for World Ovarian Cancer Day. She works closely with over 20 groups across Ireland to increase awareness of the disease. World Ovarian Cancer Day is a global movement bringing women living with ovarian cancer, their families and supporters, patient advocacy organisations, medical practitioners, and researchers together each year on the 8th May to raise awareness of ovarian cancer.

Ovarian cancer is the 4th leading cause of cancer death in Ireland. Over 400 women are diagnosed annually, with 290 women losing their lives due to the disease according to the National Cancer Registry. Ireland ranks among the highest in the world in terms of mortality from ovarian cancer. There is no screening for ovarian cancer, therefore early diagnosis and treatment are vital. Dr O’Toole describes the importance of encouraging women to listen to their bodies and to consult with their GP with relevant symptoms:

“If women have persistent bloating, abdominal or pelvic pain; changes in urination, bowel or eating habits including eating less and/or feeling full more quickly, we urge you to consult your GP. Symptoms of ovarian cancer can often be confused with other conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome. This is why it is important to seek help if you notice persistent changes.”

Women often do not recognise the signs and symptoms, and ovarian cancer is typically diagnosed late which leads to poorer outcomes. Those with a family history of other cancers should be especially aware. Dr O’Toole explained:

“Women with a family history of breast or ovarian cancer should be particularly vigilant. Talk to your GP, describe new symptoms which are not going away, and be sure to mention any family history.”

Ovarian cancer research underway in School of Medicine, Trinity College Dublin, focuses on the identification of diagnostic and prognostic biomarkers so that patients can be better triaged in their clinical pathway. For example, Dr Mark Bates has recently described the role of the TLR4/MyD88/MAD2 in resistance to paclitaxel in ovarian cancer. Dr Bashir Mohamed is looking at ways to overcome resistance to chemotherapy by coupling the drugs with tiny materials known as nanodiamonds. Ovarian cancer patients are also at high risk of developing clots and Dr Lucy Norris has recently published a risk score to identify those most vulnerable. The cancer metastasis program under the leadership of Prof John O’Leary and Dr O’Toole focusses on understanding the complex interactions between cancer cells and blood components in the circulation. Dr Mark Ward has recently published a detailed review in this area. Dr O’ Toole said:

“Our research group are fortunate to have an extensive biobank of material collected in conjunction with our clinical colleagues which has enabled many of our studies. We are truly grateful to all the patients who donate their samples and data to research. As researchers, we can often be confined to the laboratory working on a disease where we never see the reality of the disease. Working in Obstetrics and Gynaecology and Histopathology, we encourage all our students and fellows to present their research to patient groups and to get involved in awareness events related to gynaecological cancers.”

The group also run a social media campaign to increase awareness. On the 8th of May, many well-known landmarks will light up in the colour teal, the colour associated all over the world with the fight against ovarian cancer. These include Clare County Council; Bunratty Castle; City Hall, Cork; Coombe Women and Infants University Hospital; Cork County Hall, Crann Centre, Cork; East Galway and Midlands Cancer Support Centre, Co. Galway; Heuston Station, Dublin; Iveagh House Dublin; Kilkenny Castle; Mansion House; Mater Hospital; National Concert Hall; National University of Ireland, Galway; Pearse Lyons Distillery; Purple House Cancer Support, Wicklow; Rock of Cashel; St. John’s Castle, Limerick; The Convention Centre Dublin, Titanic Belfast and University College Cork. Dr O’Toole explained how those at home can also join in to create awareness:

“We encourage everyone to get involved in the #TEALights campaign from home. By lighting a tea light at home, patients, survivors, families and supporters will feel the solidarity of the Irish ovarian cancer community on that day.”

You can read about the group’s research in more detail here: