Ovarian Cancer: It's time for women to Speak Up
Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common female cancer in the UK – yet our diagnosis and survival rates are relatively low. As March's Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month begins, Lisa Salmon reports on why we all need to Speak Up, Listen Up!
IT'S not unusual for women to feel bloated or have tummy pain – but if these symptoms are new and persistent, it's time to 'speak up'.
There are countless causes for this type of abdominal symptom – most of which are not serious and nothing to worry about – but they could also be a sign of ovarian cancer, which is why Ovarian Cancer Action has launched their Speak Up, Listen Up! campaign for this year's awareness month.
"Ovarian cancer is particularly difficult to diagnose, yet early diagnosis is crucial," says Katherine Taylor, the charity's chief executive. "It's important that women feel empowered to listen to their bodies, and to speak up if they think something's wrong.
"We want to encourage people around us – whether that be family members, people at work or GPs – to listen to what we have to say."
Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cause of cancer deaths in women in Britain and Northern Ireland. More than 7,000 are diagnosed with the disease every year – resulting in around 4,300 deaths – and yet the UK's survival rates are among the lowest in western Europe.
According to Ovarian Cancer Action, one of the reasons for this is that the disease is often detected late.
"When women are diagnosed in the early stages of ovarian cancer, they have a 90 per cent chance of surviving for more than five years, but this reduces to 22 per cent when diagnosed in the later stages," explains Taylor. "Too often, we hear stories of women not being heard, or their cancer being diagnosed too late."
Despite the figures, on the whole, outcomes for ovarian cancer have improved. Twenty years ago, only 20 per cent of women diagnosed lived beyond five years, whereas today, women with ovarian cancer have a 46 per cent chance of living at least five years longer – but early diagnosis is very important.
After surveying 1,000 women, the charity found that many were either too embarrassed to talk to their GP about sexual health issues, or they didn't feel they were being taken seriously when they did. More than a quarter (27 per cent) said they'd put off seeing a doctor due to embarrassment, and almost one in five (17 per cent) felt it was a waste of time to go for an appointment, as they'd previously felt 'fobbed off'.
"Doctors have a difficult job to do because ovarian cancer is rare and symptoms are often confused with other ailments – it may simply not be on their radar," Taylor acknowledges. "Nonetheless, it's important that they refer women who are presenting with symptoms of ovarian cancer for further tests as soon as possible."
Many potential symptoms are vague, or extremely common.
"Ask any woman if she's ever felt bloated and the answer will probably be, 'Of course'," says Taylor.
"But the critical factor is persistence," she adds. "If you're experiencing these symptoms more than 12 days a month and they're unusual for you, get them checked out."
Alongside persistent bloating, the four main symptoms are stomach pain, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly, and needing to urinate more frequently.
Taylor advises anybody concerned to keep a "symptom diary", which they can take with them to their GP. "It's really important to be aware of symptoms that are unusual for you."
Ovarian cancer can only be accurately detected – or ruled out – with tests. If women are concerned about their symptoms, but their GP hasn't thoroughly discussed their worries with them, or referred them for tests, Taylor says, "be persistent".
"If you feel you've not had the right diagnosis, keep going back to your doctor," she stresses, adding that a CA-125 blood test can indicate warning signs of ovarian cancer and prompt further tests.
Women of all ages can get ovarian cancer, although it is far more common as we get older (around 80 per cent of cases occur in women over 50).
Other risk factors can include a family history – if two or more relatives from the same side of your family have had ovarian cancer under the age of 50, or there's been more than one case of ovarian and breast cancer in your close family, you may have a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer (though it doesn't mean you definitely will), as you may have inherited the a faulty BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, believed to create a greater chance (35-60 per cent) of developing the disease.
In addition, a rare condition called hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC), which runs in families, can slightly increase the risk of developing ovarian cancer (as well as bowel, stomach, colon, pancreatic, biliary and bladder cancer), plus obesity, HRT, smoking, and a history of endometriosis and long menstruation (which could result from starting your periods before the age of 12, going through menopause later than 55 and not having children) have also been linked with possible increased risk.
Ovarian Cancer Action is asking supporters to organise a local #WalkInHerName sponsored walk, to help raise funds for further research and awareness.
For more information about ovarian cancer, and to download a 'symptom diary', visit www.ovarian.org.uk.