According to new research by the charity Target Ovarian Cancer, a lack of awareness of ovarian cancer symptoms amongst doctors is costing lives.
Survival rates for ovarian cancer in the UK are amongst the lowest in
Europe. Each year, 7,300 women are diagnosed with the disease, whilst 4,100 die. 15% die within two months of diagnosis, whilst two-thirds die within ten years.
Shockingly, 4 in 10 ovarian cancer patients say that their symptoms were not taken seriously by their GPs, who attributed them to digestive problems, stress, the menopause or even mental health problems. 20% of ovarian cancer patients over the age of 50 were initially diagnosed with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), although medical guidelines state that older women with symptoms of IBS should be screened for ovarian cancer.
Whilst early detection and
treatment are key, only 3% of UK women claim to be confident in spotting the symptoms of ovarian cancer. This awareness could, quite literally, save your life.
Symptoms of ovarian cancer include:
Abdominal swelling or persistent bloating
Appetite loss, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
Pelvic, lower abdominal or lower back pain
Pain during sex
Needing to wee more urgently or more often
If you regularly experience any of these symptoms, it is important that you see your GP. They may be caused by a benign ovarian cyst or digestive issue, but it’s important to uncover the underlying cause.
Women often face delays of up to six months in obtaining an accurate diagnosis from their GP. If you are concerned, make sure you ask for an examination. A third of ovarian cancer patients are not diagnosed until they have to be admitted to A&E, when the disease is more advanced, treatment options are limited and the likelihood of survival is lower.
If your GP suspects ovarian cancer, they may perform the following examinations or tests:
Your GP may check you for signs of tumours or a build-up of fluid (ascites). They may also perform a pelvic exam, checking the ovaries and nearby organs for lumps or other changes in size or shape.
CA125 blood test
CA125 is a substance found on the surface of ovarian cancer cells, as well as some normal tissues. A high level of CA125 may be a sign of ovarian cancer or another condition.
An ultrasound uses sound waves to create a picture of the internal organs, which can indicate the presence of a tumour. This may be carried out abdominally (external) or transvaginally (internal).
Your doctor may suggest surgery (a laparotomy) to remove tissue and fluid from the pelvis and abdomen in order to look for cancer cells.
3. Risk factors
It is impossible to predict who will or won’t develop ovarian cancer, but the most important risk factors are age and family history.
A woman’s risk of ovarian cancer increases with age. Most cases occur in post-menopausal women. However, 1,000 young women develop ovarian cancer each year, so all women should know and recognise the symptoms.
More than 1,000 women who develop ovarian cancer each year have inherited ‘faulty’ gene mutations. If you have a family history of ovarian or breast cancer, you may be at increased risk. Remember, gene mutations can also be passed down the father’s line.
4. What are BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations?
When functioning normally, the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes prevent cells from growing and dividing too rapidly. Mutations in these genes can cause cells to become abnormal and grow in an uncontrolled way, increasing a woman’s risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer. A woman with a faulty BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene may have an 80% chance of developing ovarian cancer during her lifetime. Those of Ashkenazi Jewish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Dutch, Pakistani and Polish heritage are more likely to carry a mutation.
5. What can I do if I am concerned?
Before speaking to your doctor, make a note of all the cases of cancer in your family, and at what age they were diagnosed. If your GP thinks that you have a significant family history, they may refer you to a clinic for genetic testing.
Know your body and recognise the symptoms. The ability to identify changes and persistent issues is key to early diagnosis.