Primary peritoneal cancer (PPC)
Primary peritoneal cancer (PPC) is a rare cancer that starts in the layer of tissue called the peritoneum. The peritoneum lines the inside of the abdomen.
What is primary peritoneal cancer (PPC)?Back to top
This information is about primary peritoneal cancer (PPC) in women. It’s best to read it alongside our information about ovarian cancer. PPC and ovarian cancer are very similar and doctors treat them in the same way.
Another rare cancer that can affect the peritoneum is peritoneal mesothelioma, which is linked with exposure to asbestos. We have more information about mesothelioma.
We hope this information answers your questions. If you have any further questions, you can ask your doctor or nurse at the hospital where you are having your treatment.
This information is written for women with PPC. If you’re a man with PPC, please contact our cancer support specialists. They can provide you with more specific information.
The peritoneum covers and helps protect all the organs in the abdomen (tummy area) – for example, the stomach, liver and bowel, as well as the womb, ovaries and fallopian tubes. It also produces a lubricating fluid which helps these organs move around smoothly inside the abdomen.
A PPC can start anywhere in this area and can affect the surface of any of the organs in the peritoneum. Ovarian cancers often spread from the ovaries to the peritoneum so doctors always rule out ovarian cancer before PPC is diagnosed.
The causes of PPC are unknown. Like most cancers, it’s more common in older people. PPC rarely happens in men.
A small number of PPCs are thought to be caused by an inherited faulty gene linked to ovarian and breast cancer in the family. People who are worried about cancer because of their family history can be referred to specialist clinics where their risk will be carefully assessed. You can also look at our online tool called OPERA.
Most women don't have obvious symptoms for a long time. Symptoms can include any of the following:
- loss of appetite
- feeling sick (nausea) and bloated
- unexplained weight gain
- swelling in the abdomen due to a build-up of fluid
- pain in the lower abdomen
- constipation or diarrhoea
- needing to pass urine more often
- shortness of breath, if there is a build-up of fluid in the lungs as well as the abdomen.
These symptoms may be caused by a number of conditions other than PPC. But, if you have any symptoms that get worse or last for a few weeks, it's important to have them checked by your GP.
Usually you begin by seeing your GP, who will examine you and may arrange for you to have an ultrasound scan and blood tests. Your GP will refer you to a specialist doctor, usually a gynaecologist (a specialist in women’s health), for advice and treatment.
At the hospital, the gynaecologist will ask you about your general health and any previous medical problems. They will then examine you. This will include an internal (vaginal) examination to check for any lumps or swellings. Sometimes, you may also have an examination of your back passage (rectum). You can ask for a female doctor to do the internal examination if you prefer.
You may also have a chest x-ray to check your general health. You will have a blood test to check the levels of a protein called CA125. CA125 levels may be higher than normal in women with PPC or ovarian cancer.
The following tests are commonly used. You can read about these in more detail in our information about ovarian cancer.
This test uses sound waves to build up a picture of the inside of the abdomen, the liver and the pelvis. You usually have it in the hospital scanning department.
You will be asked to drink plenty of fluids so that your bladder is full. This helps give a clearer picture. Once you are lying comfortably on your back, a gel is spread on to your abdomen. A small device (like a microphone) is then rubbed over the area. This device produces sound waves, which are converted into a picture by a computer.
A small device (about the size of a tampon) is put into your vagina. The device produces sound waves, which are then converted into a picture by a computer. This type of ultrasound scan may sound uncomfortable, but many women find it more comfortable than a pelvic ultrasound, because you don’t need to have a full bladder.
CT (computerised tomography) scan
A CT scan takes a series of x-rays that build up a three-dimensional (3D) picture of the inside of the body. The scan is painless and takes 10–30 minutes. CT scans use a small amount of radiation, which is very unlikely to harm you and won't harm anyone you come into contact with.
You may be given a drink or injection of a dye, which allows certain areas to be seen more clearly. For a few minutes, this may make you feel hot all over. If you’re allergic to iodine or have asthma, you could have a more serious reaction to the injection, so it's important to let the hospital doctor know beforehand. Once you are lying in a comfortable position, the scan will be taken.
You will probably be able to go home as soon as the scan is over.
MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan
This test is similar to a CT scan, but uses magnetism instead of x-rays to build up a detailed picture of areas of your body. Before the scan you may be asked to complete and sign a checklist. This is to make sure that it’s safe for you to have an MRI scan.
Before having the scan, you’ll be asked to remove any metal belongings, including jewellery. Some people are given an injection of dye into a vein in the arm. This is called a contrast medium and can help the images from the scan to show up more clearly.
During the test you will be asked to lie very still on a couch inside a long cylinder (tube) for about 30 minutes. It's painless but can be slightly uncomfortable, and some people feel a bit claustrophobic during the scan. It’s also noisy, but you’ll be given earplugs or headphones.
Removing fluid from the abdomen
Sometimes swelling of the tummy (abdomen) can be due to a build-up of fluid in the abdomen called ascites.
If you have ascites your doctor may want to take a sample of the fluid to check for any cancer cells. Sometimes this is done while you’re having an ultrasound scan. This help guide the doctor to the fluid. The doctor numbs the area with an injection of a local anaesthetic. They then pass a small needle through the skin into your abdomen and draw some of the fluid into a syringe. The fluid is examined under a microscope to look for cancer cells.
If you have a lot of fluid in your abdomen, taking away the fluid can help you feel more comfortable. The doctor will numb the area, and then put a fine tube called a cannula through the skin. The tube attaches to a drainage bag, which collects the fluid as it drains from your tummy. This can take a few hours.
This is a small operation that allows the doctor to look at the ovaries and the surrounding area. You have it under a general anaesthetic but you may be able to go home on the same day.
The surgeon makes 3–4 small cuts (1cm long) in the skin and muscle of the lower abdomen. They pump some carbon dioxide gas into the abdomen to lift up the tummy wall, so the organs can be seen clearly. The doctor then puts a thin fibre-optic tube with a tiny camera on the end (called a laparoscope) into the abdomen.
After a laparoscopy, you will have one or two stitches in your lower abdomen. You should be able to get up as soon as the effects of the anaesthetic have worn off.
You may have uncomfortable wind and/or shoulder pains for a few days afterwards. The pain is often eased by walking about or by taking sips of peppermint water.
Sometimes the surgeon needs to do an operation called a laparotomy to make a definite diagnosis of primary peritoneal cancer. A larger cut is made in the skin and muscle of the abdomen. This allows the surgeon to look at all the organs in the abdomen. This will involve an overnight stay in hospital.
The stage of a cancer describes its size, position and if it has spread from where it started. Knowing the stage helps the doctors decide on the most appropriate treatment for you.
Because ovarian and primary peritoneal cancers are alike, doctors use the same staging system. In PCC the cancer is either stage 3 or stage 4 but has not started in the ovaries or the fallopian tubes.
The cancer may have spread outside the pelvis and/or to the lymph nodes at the back of the tummy.
This is when the cancer has spread to organs inside the abdomen, for example the liver, or organs further away such as the lungs.
There’s more detailed information on staging in our information on ovarian cancer.
A team of specialists will meet to discuss and decide on the best treatment for you. This multidisciplinary team (MDT) will include:
- a surgeon who specialises in gynaecological cancers (a gynaecological oncologist)
- a cancer doctor (oncologist) who specialises in cancer treatments for gynaecological cancers
- a gynae-oncology nurse specialist
- a radiologist (a doctor who analyses x-rays and scans)
- pathologists (who advise on the type and extent of the cancer).
Your cancer doctor and nurse specialist will advise you about the best treatment for your particular situation and answer any questions you have.
The main treatments for PPC are surgery and chemotherapy. You may have a combination of both. The aim of treatment is to keep the cancer under control for as long as possible. If surgery isn’t possible or suitable for you, you will usually be offered chemotherapy on its own. Occasionally some people have treatment with radiotherapy.
Your cancer doctor and specialist nurse will talk to you about your treatment options. You and your doctor can then decide on the best treatment plan for you. Our booklet on understanding ovarian cancer has more information.
Some women may not be well enough to have treatment or may decide not to have it. But they can still have treatment to relieve symptoms.
You may have surgery to remove as much of the cancer as possible. This usually involves removing the:
- ovaries and fallopian tubes
- sheet of fatty tissue inside the abdomen (omentum).
Doctors sometimes call this debulking surgery.
Most women can go home 3–7 days after the operation. How long you spend in hospital depends on the operation you have and how quickly you recover.
Chemotherapy is the use of anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. You may have chemotherapy:
- on its own as the main treatment
- before surgery to make the tumour smaller and easier to remove
- after surgery to treat any cancer cells that may be left behind
- after surgery to treat any areas of cancer that couldn’t be removed.
Your doctor and nurse will tell you more about the chemotherapy drugs and their side effects. They’ll explain how long the course is likely to be. You usually have a session of treatment followed by a rest period of a few weeks.
A nurse will usually give you the chemotherapy drugs into a vein (intravenously). You usually have this in a chemotherapy day ward. They give you anti-sickness drugs to take at home before you go. Some of the common side effects of chemotherapy are being more likely to get an infection, feeling sick, and tiredness. We have more information about chemotherapy.
Radiotherapy treats cancer by using high-energy rays to destroy cancer cells, while doing as little harm as possible to normal cells. Doctors occasionally use radiotherapy to treat individual areas of PPC that come back after surgery and chemotherapy.
Clinical trials for PPCBack to top
Research into new ways of treating PPC is ongoing. Doctors are always looking for improved ways of treating PPC and they do this by using clinical trials. Many hospitals now take part in these trials. Before any trial is allowed to take place it must have been approved by an ethics committee, which checks that the trial is in the interest of patients.
You may be asked to take part in a clinical trial. Your doctor must discuss the treatment with you so that you fully understand the trial and what it involves. You can decide not to take part, or to withdraw from a trial, at any stage. If this is the case you will still receive the best standard treatment available.
After treatment, you will have regular follow-up appointments with your specialist to monitor how you’re recovering. They can also pick up any new symptoms or difficulties. Follow-up usually includes a physical examination and you may have blood samples taken.
You are likely to experience a number of different emotions during your experience of cancer. These can include shock, disbelief, fear and anger. At times, these emotions can be overwhelming and hard to control. These feelings are natural and it's important to be able to express them.
Everyone has their own way of coping with difficult situations. Some people find it helpful to talk to family or friends, while others prefer to seek help from people outside their situation. Some people prefer to keep their feelings to themselves. There is no right or wrong way to cope, but help is available if you need it. You may wish to contact our cancer support specialists about counselling in your area.
This page has been compiled using information from a number of reliable sources. If you’d like further information on the sources we use, please feel free to contact us.
This information was reviewed by a medical professional.
Thanks to people like you
Thank you to all of the people affected by cancer who reviewed what you're reading and have helped our information to grow.
You could help us too when you join our Cancer Voices Network - find out more.