Around 7,400 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the UK every year, making it the sixth most common cancer in women, according to Cancer Research UK. Ovarian cancer is more common in older women over the age of 50, but anyone can get the disease and there are certain risk factors that can increase the chances of developing it, including smoking and medical conditions such as endometriosis as well as diabetes.
This Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, gynaecologist Dr Susanna Unsworth shares the subtle ovarian cancer symptoms you should never ignore.
Experts say the biggest issue with this type of cancer is that currently more than 75 percent of cases are diagnosed at a later stage, when the cancer has already spread into the abdomen or beyond, and while treatments have significantly improved, a later diagnosis does mean that survival rates are lower.
Speaking to the Mirror, Dr Unsworth explained that one of the biggest reasons for later diagnosis is that ovarian cancer does not often cause significant symptoms until it has already become quite advanced. However, she claims there are several subtle symptoms that may potentially be an early sign of ovarian cancer and she is warning women to be cautious of them.
“I would encourage booking a review with your GP if you are experiencing them,” she told The Mirror. “Many of the symptoms are subtle and do not mean that you have ovarian cancer. But it is worth having them checked out to hopefully exclude any underlying problem.”
The doctor claims the “key symptom” to look out for are bloating, pain, urinary symptoms and a lump or swelling. She went on to explain what exactly to keep an eye on for each of these.
For bloating, this is “new onset bloating, bloating that does not settle within two to weeks, bloating that is happening frequently without an obvious trigger, and bloating that is not resolving with the usual treatments/dietary changes”.
Next, you need to be wary of “a new pain in the pelvis, back or lower abdomen that does not quickly settle” according to the expert. And if you notice you are passing “urine more frequently or developed the need to get up during the night to pass urine” this could be a warning sign.
In addition to this, you may also experience a loss of appetite or feeling full quickly after eating and if you notice any lump or swelling in the lower abdomen or pelvis, Dr Unsworth recommends seeing your GP straightaway, although she claims this would be an “unusual” early sign.
Other symptoms to look out for include persistent indigestion, change in bowel habit (either constipation or diarrhoea), unexplained weight loss, persistent fatigue or abnormal vaginal bleeding.
She goes on to explain what you should expect if you speak to a GP about any of these issues, saying: “These symptoms can often be quite subtle, and many are associated with other common conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome. The key thing is if the symptoms are new to you, are different to your usual symptoms, or do not respond to your usual treatments, then it makes sense to get them checked out.
“When you see your GP, discuss the symptoms you are experiencing. I would also suggest telling your GP that you are concerned about ovarian cancer. As a doctor, it is much easier for me, if I also know what you are worried about – that way I can assess the problem fully for you, making sure whatever is done has helped answer the questions you had.
“After discussing the symptoms, your GP will likely want to do an examination. This will include an examination of your tummy, and may also include an internal vaginal examination as this is the best way to see if there are any swellings around the ovaries.
“In early ovarian cancer, often the examination will actually be normal, as there may not yet be anything to feel. Therefore, your GP will likely arrange other tests for you such as a pelvic ultrasound or Ca125 blood test looking for a protein known as a tumour marker.”
Dr Unsworth adds: “Your GP may also want to arrange other tests as the symptoms of ovarian cancer can be fairly vague and can overlap with other conditions. This might include other blood tests to look for inflammation or potential causes of tiredness, or may also include tests of your poo to look for any bowel problems.
“If any of these tests raise any level of concern, your GP will refer you to see a gynaecology specialist to arrange further assessment. If the tests are normal, the likelihood of ovarian cancer is extremely low and other options to manage the symptoms can be recommended.”
Dr Unsworth is an NHS Community Gynaecology and Menopause Specialist and the Founder of Cambridge Women’s Health Menopause Clinic and menopause supplement Meno8.
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