By Miriam Stoppard on Feb 28,
Women with ovarian cancer are getting a rough deal - and something desperately needs to be done.
Despite the fact that, like most cancers, it's highly curable if it's diagnosed at the earliest stage, this only happens in one in five cases.
Every year in the UK, 4,500 women die from ovarian cancer. Our survival rate is the worst in Europe and has stayed at roughly 30% for 30 years. This contrasts with survival rates for breast cancer, which have risen from 50 to 80% in the same period.
The problem is two-fold.
Survey findings released today by ovarian cancer charity Ovacome reveal that nine out of 10 women diagnosed with the cancer hadn't known the symptoms of the disease, while a third hadn't even heard of it.
Yet ovarian cancer is the fourth most common women's cancer and affects 6,800 a year - compare this with cervical cancer, which has a much higher profile, but affects just 2,800.
Women clearly don't get the right information, so I'm delighted Ovacome has today launched BEAT, a symptoms awareness campaign.
And many doctors still think of the disease as the "silent killer'", despite now knowing symptoms are present much earlier than was thought.
Last June results of the first phase of Pathfinder, an ongoing study for charity Target Ovarian Cancer, found three-quarters of GPs were unaware of Department of Health guidelines on symptoms and diagnosis.
Worryingly eight out of 10 wrongly believed women with early-stage ovarian cancer don't have any symptoms.
As a result, diagnosis is delayed for an average of 12 months by which time the disease will almost certainly have progressed.
And because the ovaries are near many vital organs, consequences are dire. I'm not bashing GPs here - the average GP sees one case of ovarian cancer every five years and the guidelines were only put in place 13 months ago. The symptoms are very similar to irritable bowel syndrome, a common and much less serious complaint.
But it's clear we now need to ensure that women and doctors receive all the latest life-saving information.
Will a smear test find it?
The smear test only checks for cell changes that could lead to cancer of the cervix - it doesn't detect ovarian cancer. But a third of women mistakenly believe this. Research by Target Ovarian Cancer also found that nearly half of women think cervical cancer is a bigger threat.
However, ovarian cancer kills four times as many women! Test your knowledge of women's cancers with this five-minute quiz at www.targetovarian.org.uk.
my GP do?
If you turn up with unexplained abdominal or urinary symptoms, the doctor should feel your tummy and may want to carry out an internal examination.
If you have the three most common symptoms, which are persistent, continuous or getting worse, Department of Health guidelines say the doctor should consider ovarian cancer and refer you for an ultrasound scan and blood test. This is especially the case if you're over 50.
You should also tell your doctor if you have two or more close relatives who have had ovarian, or ovarian and breast cancer, on either side of your family as certain genes may increase the risk.
If your doctor insists symptoms are rare with ovarian cancer, refer them to the BEAT campaign - you can download a poster for the surgery from www.ovacome.org.uk/beat. Don't be afraid to get a second opinion.
Am I at risk?
Age is the biggest risk factor with more than 90% of cases occurring in the over-45s.
However, if you have a strong family history - that is, two or more close relatives who've had ovarian, or ovarian and breast cancer, on your mother's or father's side - your genes may substantially increase your risk. Ask your GP for clarification.
This is more likely if you're of Jewish, Polish, Icelandic or Pakistani descent. It's also more than twice as common in women who've never had children and more than three-quarters more likely in obese women. Some studies suggest being on HRT for more than five years could increase risk though this isn't proven beyond doubt.
What can reduce risk?
Being on the Pill for three to five years could halve risk while long-term users may have an 80% lower risk than they would otherwise.
You should discuss risks with your GP.
Having children and breastfeeding also lowers risk, as does staying at a healthy weight, so eat healthily and exercise regularly.
How is it treated?
Usually with a combination of radiotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery, but it varies, depending on the type and stage of cancer, whether it's spread, how far it's spread and your health.
In April 2008, a Consensus Statement was put together by a group of leading ovarian cancer experts.
All agreed on the first three most common symptoms.
To help you remember them, Ovacome has come up with the word 'BEAT', which stands for:
B Bloating - note this is persistent, NOT the sort of temporary bloating we all get from time to time
E Eating - in this case, difficulty eating and feeling
full more quickly than you used to
A Abdominal and pelvic pain felt on
T Talk to your doctor if you have the above
Other possible symptoms, which may appear on their own or with the first three, include:
● Urinary symptoms, such as difficulty controlling your bladder
● Change in bowel habit
● Severe tiredness
● Back pain
● Weight loss for no obvious reason
Don't panic - these symptoms are much more likely to be due to other, less serious conditions.
But it's important to get them checked out with your doctor.
To help you record how frequent they are, try Ovacome's symptoms tool at www.ovacome.org.uk/beat.