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MDX research reveals urgent need for increased ovarian cancer awareness

Target Ovarian Cancer say two thirds of cases are diagnosed late and one in seven women die within two months of receiving a diagnosis

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More than a third of people do not know any symptoms of ovarian cancer highlighting the need for increased awareness about the condition which is often confused with cervical cancer, based on new research by Middlesex University.

Academics surveyed 449 people aged between 18 and 75-years-old on their knowledge of ovarian cancer.

As the world marks Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, the findings reveal: -

  • 36.7% of participants could not recall any correct ovarian cancer symptoms -
  • 57.9% of participants incorrectly believed there was an NHS ovarian cancer screening programme indicating confusion between cervical and ovarian cancer
  • Confidence in recognising an ovarian cancer symptom was low with only 1.4% very confident and 22.6% fairly confident
  • The least frequently recognised ovarian cancer symptoms were difficulty eating (39.4%) and feeling full persistently (38.7%)

Fiona Robb, a retired health professional from Perthshire in Scotland was diagnosed more than two years after her first symptoms. She suffered from post-menopausal bleeding in 2017 but was not officially given an ovarian cancer diagnosis until August 2019 after a recurrence of pelvic pain.

Since then Fiona is now in remission having undergone chemotherapy and a treatment of ‘PARP inhibitors’, a targeted cancer drug which can prevent the spread of cancer by stopping a protein called PARP from performing its usual job of helping damaged cells repair themselves.

Welcoming the new research from Middlesex University, Fiona (pictured below) said: “The study shows the lack of awareness around ovarian cancer which is such a massive concern because we need to pick up this condition as soon as possible to save lives.

“This awareness needs to targeted not just at the general population but also health practitioners because GPs in particular might not be so accustomed to spotting the signs.

Fiona Robb

“It is so easy to confuse the symptoms with other conditions as I’ve experienced first-hand after it took two years until my diagnosis. This became incredibly stressful as the conditions worsened.

“After being given reassurance about my initial symptoms, I dismissed further minor symptoms until they became more problematic, which that was the wrong thing to do. “I would urge all women, including those who are not over 50 or post-menopausal, to seek medical advice for persistent issues even if they may seem trivial such as stomach pain.”

There are around 7,500 new cases of ovarian cancer in the UK each year but symptoms such as bloating are often associated with various health issues.

Women aged over 50 and post-menopausal are described as at most risk, but it is often poorly misunderstood how ovarian cancer can also affect younger women.

The CA-125 blood test as well as an ultrasound of the abdomen and pelvis is used to diagnose ovarian cancer in women experiencing symptoms.

Dr Britta Stordal, a cancer researcher and Senior Lecturer in Medical Sciences who led the study, said: “People often do not understand being vaccinated and going for smear tests for cervical cancer does not give you any protection for other gynaecological cancers, including ovarian.

“Symptoms can be vague and the main ones are bloating, pelvic and abdominal pain which could relate to dozens of other conditions.

“So in many cases GPs do not make an instant connection and may test for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and gluten intolerance, and several other health issues, before they look at the cancer spectrum.

“The speed of diagnosis is a massive problem and ovarian cancer is typically diagnosed at quite a late stage when survival outcomes are much worse.”

Dr Sharon Tate, Head of Primary Care Development at Target Ovarian Cancer, said: “We are passionate about supporting GPs in diagnosing ovarian cancer at the earliest possible stage.

“Currently, two thirds of cases are diagnosed late and one in seven women die within two months of receiving a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. If diagnosed at the earliest stage, the easier the cancer is to treat. This is why it’s vital to see improvements in awareness of ovarian cancer, alongside GP education, investment in research and much more."

Dr Tate said that there are a few things women can do to help your GP if they are concerned about ovarian cancer:

  • If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms that aren’t normal for you, contact your GP and tell them that you are concerned about cancer  - persistent bloating, abdominal pain, feeling full quickly and needed to wee more often
  • Think about your family history – have two or more members of your family had ovarian or breast cancer on either your father or mother’s side? If so, tell your GP
  • Download the Target Ovarian Cancer symptom diary to take notes of how frequent your symptoms are and take this with you to your appointment

The research paper -  Awareness of ovarian cancer symptoms and risk factors in a
young ethnically diverse British population -
has been peer reviewed and published in the journal Cancer Medicine.

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Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

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