4 ways to spot ovarian cancer

Though 7,000 UK women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer every year, many of us are unaware of the symptoms...

One in 50 women will develop ovarian cancer in their lifetime, making it the fifth most common cancer for females. But the disease can be tricky to detect as the symptoms can be easily passed off as other conditions.

It's often thought of as a 'symptom-less' cancer. However, there are actually several early warning signs that, if spotted, could make a crucial difference to treatment, as Dr Sharon Tate, public affairs manager for the Target Ovarian Cancer charity, stresses.

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When caught early, ovarian cancer can be treated successfully in 70% of cases.

1. The symptoms

The symptoms for ovarian cancer can be very similar to those of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Therefore it's crucial to recognise what is normal for your body and if you are noticing changes, head to your GP to check that nothing irregular is happening.

"The four main symptoms that women should look out for are persistent pain in the tummy or pelvis, persistent bloating, urinary problems - which could mean feeling like you need to wee more often than normal - and also feeling full or difficulty eating," says Tate.

"There are also other less common symptoms like changes to bowel habits, extreme fatigue and weight loss. A lot of women experience these symptoms every month with their period, or if they have food intolerances, so it's important to bear in mind any new symptoms you have."

2. Persistence is key

"The symptoms for ovarian cancer are persistent," says Tate. "By persistent I mean something that doesn't go away and doesn't fluctuate like, say, period pain does. These are symptoms that occur more than 12 times a month.

"Write down the symptoms, the intensity of them and how frequently they occur. Then when you go to your GP, take your diary with you as it can help talk through the changes you're experiencing."

3. Testing times

It's useful to bear in mind that a regular smear test will only pick up symptoms for cervical cancer. Many women mistakenly think that their smear will catch ovarian cancer too but this isn't the case. At present, there isn't a routine screening programme in place for ovarian cancer.

As a result, Annwen Jones, Target Ovarian Cancer's chief executive, believes that the best line of defence is to recognise the symptoms for ovarian cancer and tell your GP as soon as possible if you experience them. "Early diagnosis saves lives," she says. "By being aware of the symptoms, women can visit their doctor early with any concerns to be checked out.”

4. Risk factors

Age is the biggest risk factor. Generally, ovarian cancer develops in older women - but not always. "In most cases, ovarian cancer affects women over the age of 50, many of whom will have gone through the menopause," says Tate. "But while it is unusual, it does affect younger women too."

Inheriting a faulty gene can also lead to an increased risk of developing the disease. However, the majority of the time (nine out of 10 cases) will be 'sporadic', meaning there's no faulty gene or family chain.

"A lot of women worry that because a close relative has had ovarian cancer, they will get it, but in most cases it's a one-off meaning there isn't a family link," says Tate. "So while it's important to know your family history, it doesn't necessarily mean you have a significantly increased threat if someone in your family has had it."

As with many cancers, lifestyle factors, such as having a poor diet and smoking, may also lead to an increased risk. However, this isn't always the case and any woman could potentially be affected.

What happens next?

If your doctor thinks that may be showing symptoms of ovarian cancer, they will arrange for you to have a blood test. They may also refer you for an ultrasound on your belly. In some cases, GPs may refer you to a special gynaecology unit.

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