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Do you know the early signs of ovarian cancer?

Just one in five women can name bloating as a symptom of ovarian cancer. Early diagnosis makes the disease easier to treat, so it's vital to be aware of the signs. 

Imagine this scenario: you've felt constantly bloated for a few weeks. It's annoying and very uncomfortable but you don't think it’s serious enough to bother your doctor about. Everyone gets bloated, right? It's probably just something you're eating.

But here's the problem: women in this situation could be unknowingly putting themselves at risk of ovarian cancer - the sixth most common cancer among UK women.

Laura Everley, 38, from West Sussex, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2014.

She says: "Before I was diagnosed I was experiencing all of the symptoms of ovarian cancer, including bloating. I thought that I might have irritable bowel syndrome. I'd even tried going gluten-free, but it made no difference. The idea of cancer hadn't even entered my head though. You just never dream this is going to happen to you."

Research produced in 2018 by Target Ovarian Cancer shows that, like Laura, half of women would change their diet if they were concerned about bloating, but just one in three (34%) would see a doctor about it.

Luckily, a social media post may have saved Laura's life.

"I first realised I could have cancer when I saw a post on Facebook listing all the symptoms of the disease. A friend had shared a post from a friend of theirs about her experiences of cancer and what she'd been through. There was a list of symptoms and I was shocked to realise that I had them all," she reveals.

Currently two thirds of women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer once the cancer has spread, making it more difficult to treat. But caught at an early stage, before it has spread from the ovaries, long-term survival rates are over 90%. This is why it's so important to be aware of the symptoms.

Ovarian cancer symptoms

Target Ovarian Cancer's research shows that just 1 in 5 women in the UK can name bloating as a major symptom of ovarian cancer. And it's not the only sign of the disease women need to know about.

Symptoms of ovarian cancer include:

  • Persistent bloating (not the kind that comes and goes over the day).
  • Feeling full quickly and/or loss of appetite.
  • Lower abdominal pain.
  • Urinary symptoms - needing to wee more urgently or more often than usual.

Annwen Jones, chief executive of the charity says: "If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms regularly, and they are not normal for you, it is important that you see your GP. Early diagnosis of ovarian cancer makes the disease easier to treat."

Gynaecological cancer charity The Eve Appeal is keen to champion this message too. Ovarian and other gynaecological cancers (that's cervical, vulval, vaginal and womb) are not talked about enough, leaving women confused about the signs and symptoms of each illness. 

Athena Lamnisos, Chief Executive of the organisation, says: “Early detection is key, and with so few women in the UK confident of spotting a symptom of ovarian cancer – we’ve clearly got some work to do here. That’s one of the big jobs that we share with all the ovarian charities and support groups."

But don't panic

It is unlikely that your symptoms are caused by a serious problem, but it's still important to get checked out.

Patient's clinical director Dr Sarah Jarvis says: "Every woman needs to be aware of these symptoms and they need to be prepared to speak to their GP about them. But don't panic - in the vast majority of cases, the cause is much less worrying. It's important to realise that your GP may have good reason for reassuring you."

What is ovarian cancer?

Dr Sarah Jarvis MBE

She points out that we often hear stories in the media about people who were convinced they had cancer but were 'fobbed off' by their GP before finally getting the diagnosis they predicted. But this isn't the whole story.

"Because for every one of these cases, there are hundreds of women who are convinced they have cancer and who, as their GP predicted, don't have anything wrong. But these stories never make headlines."

Be aware

At the moment, there isn't a national screening programme for ovarian cancer - like there is for cervical cancer or breast cancer. That means it's vitally important women be aware of the symptoms.

Luckily, four years on, Laura is now doing well. She had a hysterectomy to treat the cancer and stop it returning.

"I look back now and think: 'Thank goodness for that Facebook post. Without that it could have been another two or three months before I got diagnosed. It might have been too late then. It can be so aggressive and it can spread so quickly that I think I was so lucky to catch it when I did'.”

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