According to a study by the Ovarian Cancer Action, ovarian cancer survival rates for British women lag behind the rest of Europe, with one woman dying from the disease every two hours.
Although ovarian cancer survival has improved by 21% over the last 35 years, the long-term rates are still low as only 65% of British women survive ovarian cancer after a year of treatment.
The Ovarian Cancer Action discovered that Britain’s ovarian cancer statistics could be blamed on lack of knowledge, as 66% of older women confused cancer symptoms with 'getting older'. Over half associated constant urinating and backaches with old age, and 16% believed that daily stomach pains were all part of the ageing process.
In light of this, the charity has launched its Take Ovarian Cancer Action Now! campaign to coincide with Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, to help tackle these shocking statistics by urging women to educate themselves on the symptoms of ovarian cancer.
“British women are far less likely than other women in Europe to get an early diagnosis of ovarian cancer and that means they are far more likely to die of it,” Gilda Witte from the charity. “This is terrible and can be avoided in the majority of cases.”
Dr Rob Hicks, who is supporting the campaign, told HuffPost Lifestyle: “I think the British women are lagging behind primarily because of the lack of awareness of the symptoms of ovarian cancer.
“Unfortunately, when the cancer is diagnosed in the UK, in the majority of cases, the disease has already spread throughout the body, so it’s far more difficult to treat.”
Ovarian cancer is currently the fifth most common cancer among women and each year, 6,500 British women are diagnosed with it.
Although experts agree that it’s crucial women know the symptoms of ovarian cancer, most of the signs are ‘silent symptoms’ and are often difficult to spot.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a screening tool for ovarian cancer so sadly this means that three in four women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer once the disease has become advanced and has spread. This prevents treatment from effectively targeting the cancer and decreases the chances of survival.
“In the UK, treatment is very, very good but unfortunately, the disease is already in the body and developing in the body before the diagnosis is made and treated. One of the challenges is that the possible symptoms are relatively non-specific and any women might put down to lifestyle or getting older," explains Dr. Hicks.
“The key thing about the symptoms – like stomach pains, bloating, needing to pass urine more frequently, is the fact that they are usually persistent. It's not a case of occasional bloating before a period or feeling full after eating - these symptoms are those that are there day in, day out.”
What are the symptoms to look out for?
Many women don’t have any symptoms or show vague signs during the early stages of ovarian cancer, but there are particular warning signs to look for:
- Stomach pain or pain in your pelvis
- Persistent bloated feeling
- Feeling full quickly and sudden loss of appetite
- Unexplained weight-loss
- Urinating more often everyday
- Lower back pain
- Extreme fatigue and tiredness
- Pain during sex
- Vaginal bleeding (that isn’t you period)
- Swelling of the lower abdomen
- Changes in your bowel or bladder habits (constipation, diarrhoea, excess wind, passing urine more often)
“Most women may experience these symptoms from time to time, especially throughout certain times of the month,” explains Dr Annabel Bentley, medical director at Bupa.
“If these symptoms occur persistently than you should go and see your GP. Only 64% of people say they visit the doctor if they are concerned about their health.”
Although these symptoms can vary and can turn out to be other problems, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), so don’t be afraid of raising these symptoms with your GP as you’re more likely to tackle the problem - whatever it is.
"From a reassuring point of view,” explains Dr Rob Hicks. “In most cases, these symptoms are not going to be ovarian cancer. However, if it should be ovarian cancer, the earlier it’s diagnosed the better chances of beating it."
This is why it’s important to raise any concerns about potential symptoms to your GP, no matter how small, urges Dr Rob Hicks, as early diagnosis is the key to fighting the disease. Around 90% of women diagnosed with early stage ovarian cancer survive for more than five years.
“I would say never hesitate about seeking advice for another you’re concerned about, Dr Rob Hicks told HuffPost Lifestyle. “If you’re GP doesn’t raise the possibility of ovarian cancer, then raise it yourself.”
What causes ovarian cancer?
Although there isn’t a single thing that can cause ovarian cancer, there are certain factors that could contribute towards your risk of developing the disease.
If you have two or more relatives from the same side of your family who has had ovarian cancer, you could be at risk of the inherited gene mutation (BRACA1 and BRACA2). One in ten cases of ovarian cancer has a genetic link, the genes are the same in breast and ovarian cancer.
A large number of ovarian cancer cases occur in women aged 40 and over who are of post-menopausal age.
Some research suggests that women on Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) are at higher risk of ovarian cancer.
Being overweight or obese can increase the risk of ovarian – and many other cancers.
What to do if you have concerns and what will happen next:
If your doctor is concerned about your symptoms, you will have a specific blood test known as the CA125 test. This is used to detect the levels of CA125 protein in the blood as a high level can indicate early stages of ovarian cancer. The doctor will also refer you for transvaginal ultrasound.
Many women often mistakenly believe ovarian cancer can be detected through a cervical smear test. This is not true.
Find out what you can do to help reduce your risk of ovarian cancer.
Breastfeeding can help reduce ovarian cancer risk as it causes the body to release fewer eggs from the ovaries, meaning the ovaries are less exposed to damage, which can lead to cancer," explains Dr Rob Hicks. "Definitely another good reason to breastfeed if you're a new mother."
According to Bupa, increasing your vitamin D intake can help reduce your ovarian cancer risk, as a deficiency of this vitamin can lead to the cancer developing. Find out how to top up your vitamin D levels with these foods.
"Doctors believe that ovarian cancer is related to how many times you ovulate (release one or more eggs from one of your ovaries), in your life," says Dr Annabel Bentley, from Bupa. "You ovulate during each menstrual cycle but the contraceptive pill prevents ovulation, so the fewer cycles you have, the lower your risk of ovarian cancer."
"Maintaining a healthy weight and not smoking are the most effective ways a woman can reduce their risk," says Dr Rob Hicks. Eating foods rich in flavonoids is also a good way of reducing ovarian cancer risks. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, flavonoids such as kaempferol (found in tea, broccoli, kale and spinach) and luteolin (found in peppers, carrots, cabbage and celery) are both great cancer preventatives, especially effective with ovarian cancer.
According to the Canadian National Enhanced Cancer Surveillance System (NECSS), moderate and regular exercise greatly reduces ovarian risk in women. They claim that it's because regular exercise boosts the body's immune system and decreases the chance of obesity.