Women urged to spot signs of silent killer

Ovarian cancer is a life-threatening disease, but can be treated successfully - if detected early enough.

OVARIAN cancer affects 6,800 women every year, but only four per cent of women know the symptoms of the killer disease.

Compared to breast cancer, many women may be unaware of how to recognise the symptoms, which can be similar to conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) - making it harder to diagnose.

Consultant surgeon John Renninson, of the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, said: “Ovarian cancer is not a common cancer, affecting only one to two per cent of the female population.

“It has the reputation of being a ‘silent killer’, because it does not produce any symptoms until it has reached an advanced stage.”

Most cases occur in women over the age of 50, who have gone through the menopause. However, younger women are also at risk. There are many different types of the disease, but the most common is epithelial ovarian cancer which occurs in the cells lining or covering the ovaries. Most tumours on the ovaries are benign, with only around one in five ovarian masses being cancerous in women still menstruating. However this increases in post menopausal women.

Symptoms can include:

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l Persistent pelvic or abdominal pain

l Increased abdominal size or persistent bloating

l Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly

l Changes to your urinary or bowel habits

l Extreme fatigue

l Back pain

Mr Renninson added: “The symptoms caused are very common, vague and variable; they are more commonly associated with much less serious conditions. Any abdominal problems such as indigestion, heartburn, abdominal bloating, change in bowel habit and discomfort can be due to ovarian cancer but are much more likely to be due to simple problems, which are easily treated.

“It is important, however, that women experiencing these symptoms persistently, who don’t respond to simple treatments, should seek advice from their GP. Unfortunately, there is no useful way of trying to detect ovarian cancer early, although studies are under way to try and identify a way of screening for the disease.”

Only 20 to 30 per cent of women diagnosed with advanced stages of the disease live long after their diagnosis.

He said: “Changes in chemotherapy and surgical treatments are beginning to have some impact on this figure, but are having the greatest impact in allowing more women to live for longer free of symptoms, which gives them a much better quality of life - even if the cancer cannot be eradicated completely.”

Irene Harrison, from Axmouth, was diagnosed with the disease in 2006 when she was 59 and wants women to be more aware of the signs and symptoms. The former community midwife, who is now 63, has been clear of the disease for four years.

She said: “I actually believe that women have a sixth sense about these things – I just knew I had it. It was just this horrible feeling. I had a couple of urine infections and some other minor things which, as women, we don’t really take any notice of.”

Irene’s cancer was found in the second stage and was treated with surgery and chemotherapy. She added: “Don’t be frightened to go to your GP, they are there to provide a service and, if they are not aware of it, don’t be afraid to go to another.

“Treatment is possible, but you have to go early. The earlier you can catch it, the better your chances. Just be aware of your body and listen to it.”

For information visit www.targetovarian.org.uk