Don't ignore the symptoms- know the signs of ovarian cancer
March is ovarian cancer awareness month two women share their stories of being diagnosed with the disease.
Do you know the symptoms of ovarian cancer?
When Marie Foord from Hastings started to feel bloated and sluggish she put it down to her diet changing during lockdown and had no idea that it meant she had cancer.
“I had constant bloating, was weeing more often and my bowels were sluggish,” she said.
“I was nervous about going to the GP because the NHS was so busy during the pandemic. I didn’t want to waste their time with something that I didn’t think was serious at the time. But the symptoms continued – especially the bloating, my tummy was constantly swollen. I knew I had to talk to a doctor.
“Nobody I know would associate bloating with ovarian cancer, and in fact it never crossed my mind before I was diagnosed. I want people to take it seriously, and give your GP a call if you’re concerned.”
UK-wide ovarian cancer charity Target Ovarian Cancer’s research shows that one in five women in the UK can name persistent bloating as a major symptom of ovarian cancer.
Some of the symptoms can often be confused with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
“Unfortunately, women may confuse these symptoms with other health problems such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome or the menopause or simply ignore the changes in their body,” said Dr Jo Thomson, SSCA primary care lead and a GP partner at Mid Sussex Healthcare.
“I would urge all women who have had persistent symptoms to contact their GP as soon as possible. `Persistent’ means longer than one month, so it would be a good idea to keep a diary and have this to hand for your appointment.”
The other symptoms include feeling full quickly and/or a loss of appetite, pelvic or abdominal pain in your tummy and below, and urinary symptoms such as needing to wee more urgently or more often than usual.
Occasionally there can be other symptoms: changes in bowel habit (eg diarrhoea or constipation), extreme fatigue (feeling very tired) and unexplained weight loss.
While it is unlikely that these symptoms are caused by a serious problem it is important to get it checked out.
According to the Surrey and Sussex Cancer Alliance (SSCA), women across Surrey and Sussex are being diagnosed at a much later stage of ovarian cancer compared with national figures. This late-stage diagnosis reduces their chances of survival.
“The problem is that many women are still not confident in spotting the symptoms of ovarian cancer and therefore they don’t seek help until the disease has spread which makes it harder to treat,” said Mr Simon Butler-Manuel, SSCA’s gynaecological oncology lead and GRACE (Gynaeoncology Research and Clinical Excellence) founder.
“I am delighted that the Cancer Alliance and GRACE are working together to raise awareness. Unlike breast and cervical cancer, there is no national screening programme for ovarian cancer, so the onus is on women to be aware of the symptoms and go to their GP if they are concerned.”
GRACE is a gynaecological cancer charity which supports women across Surrey and Sussex.
One in five women mistakenly believes that a smear test will pick up ovarian cancer, but there is currently no screening programme for ovarian cancer, which is why it is important to know the symptoms and visit your GP if you are worried.
More women die from ovarian cancer every year than all the other gynaecological cancers combined. It’s really important to go for your cervical screening (also known as a smear test) when you are called, but a smear test will not detect ovarian cancer.
Around 7,400 women are diagnosed each year in the UK and around 4,100 women lose their lives each year in the UK, which is 11 women every day.
According to Target Ovarian Cancer the risk of getting this disease increases as a woman gets older.
Women over the age of 50 have a higher risk, and most cases of ovarian cancer occur in women who have already gone through the menopause. More than half the cases of ovarian cancer diagnosed are women aged over 65 years.
Horsham resident Sylvie Allsop, 53, thought her tummy troubles were due to IBS and attributed her sporadic groin and pelvic pain to the onset of the menopause.
“I was having indigestion, constipation and a rumbling tummy after eating and thought that could be IBS. I was also having pain in my groin and pelvis and going to the loo a lot which I put down to the menopause as I was getting to that age,” said the mother of two grown-up sons.
“I tried eating different types of food to see if it would get better but it didn’t. I researched the symptoms and thought maybe it is ovarian cancer but I didn’t want to believe it as I thought I was relatively young to have that.”
She went to her GP several weeks after she first started having problems and was later diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Sylvie is now in remission following a hysterectomy in August 2019 at East Surrey Hospital and chemotherapy treatment at St Luke’s Cancer Centre in Guildford.
“So far, so good but sometime I get very down as I am frightened the cancer will return,” added Sylvie.
“Spotting the symptoms is very hard so raising awareness is a good thing for everyone.”
After being diagnosed with ovarian and womb cancer Marie underwent six months of chemotherapy and then in January 2021 she started taking new drug niraparib.
She said: “I feel well now, although it was a really difficult year – I had to go to almost all of my appointments alone, but I’m glad I got through.
“The frontline NHS staff at both the Conquest Hospital in Hastings and the Royal Sussex Hospital in Brighton were absolutely amazing and made a daunting situation so much easier for me.
“I’m looking forward to getting back to normal over the next few months.
“This pandemic can make us all nervous about going to the GP, but our health is so important. Nothing is too small or too silly to mention – just speak up if you’re worried.”
Anyone who is worried about the symptoms of ovarian cancer or any other aspect of the disease can get in touch with Target Ovarian Cancer’s nurse-led Support Line.
Valerie and Rachel provide confidential information, support and signposting for anyone affected by ovarian cancer. Contact its Support Line on 020 7923 5475 (Monday-Friday 9am-5.30pm) or get in touch online www.targetovariancancer.org.uk/supportlineFor more information on GRACE, visit grace-charity.org.uk