By Sarah Stacey
Bloating is such a usual symptom for women that many take it for granted. But it is also the most common symptom of ovarian cancer, warns the ovarian cancer support charity Ovacome (ovacome.org.uk). ‘Women often dismiss it as being something less sinister and don’t go to their doctor,’ says Louise Bayne, CEO of Ovacome.
The trouble is that even if women do consult their doctor, a recent survey of 324 patients for Ovacome suggested that a significant number are treated for irritable bowel disease or the menopause. ‘Persistent bloating is an important indicator of ovarian cancer but GPs will typically see just one case of ovarian cancer every five years so they may not link it to the disease.’
Patients in the survey who had gone to their GP with bloating had waited an average of 22 weeks for a referral to a gynaecological specialist. If they complained of abdominal pain, the second most common symptom of ovarian cancer, they waited an average 17 weeks.
Although ovarian cancer is the fifth most common gynaecological cancer in the UK, with 7,300 new cases every year, nearly 60 per cent of cases are not diagnosed until the disease has advanced to stage 3 or 4, where the cancer has spread and is difficult to treat effectively. ‘Ovarian cancer needs to be ruled out early on, instead of wasting time,’ says Louise Baynes.
– Be vigilant if bloating – a swollen tummy – persists for three weeks with no explanation, such as a stomach bug. Other symptoms include abdominal pain, and/or eating less and feeling fuller more quickly; you may also have bladder problems and find sex painful.
– If symptoms do not improve, discuss tests with your GP. A CA125 blood test detects levels of a protein that may indicate ovarian cancer (or endometriosis or ovarian cysts). If this is high, the next step is a transvaginal ultrasound to look closely at the ovaries.
– If the CA125 level is normal but you continue to feel unwell, go back to your GP within a month with a list of symptoms. See Ovacome’s online checker, beatonline.info, where you can input your symptoms and get advice. You can also rate ongoing symptoms, then show the printout to your GP.
– Tell the GP that you are concerned and remind them if you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer.