Ovarian cancer is sometimes mistaken for other conditions, which can delay access to life-saving treatment. Dr Sharon Tate highlights how occupational health professionals can play a role in raising awareness of its symptoms, which may lead to earlier diagnosis.
There are estimated to be 41,000 people living with ovarian cancer in the UK, and around 7,000 newly diagnosed cases each year.
If diagnosed at the earliest stage, when treatment is more effective, nine in 10 women will survive, but just one in five women can name one of the key ovarian cancer symptoms: bloating.
This article will cover symptoms, misconceptions, risk factors, the conditions ovarian cancer symptoms can sometimes be confused with, and the importance of raising awareness in the workplace.
Ovarian cancer symptoms
Knowing the symptoms of ovarian cancer saves lives. They are:
- Persistent bloating – not bloating that comes and goes
- Feeling full quickly and/or loss of appetite
- Pelvic or abdominal pain (that’s your tummy and below)
- Urinary symptoms (needing to wee more urgently or more often than usual)
Occasionally there can be other symptoms:
- Changes in bowel habit (for example, diarrhoea or constipation)
- Extreme fatigue (feeling very tired)
- Unexplained weight loss
- Any bleeding after the menopause – which should always be investigated by a GP
Remember, this is not a checklist: someone doesn’t need to have all of these symptoms before speaking with their GP. Just one of these symptoms that is new, persistent, and happens over three weeks or more, is something that needs attention.
In general, women have a one in 50 chance of developing ovarian cancer. However, there are two main things that increase risk:
- Age: women over the age of 50 are at a higher risk; most cases of ovarian cancer occur in those who have already gone through the menopause.
- Family history of ovarian and breast cancer: 80% to 85% of ovarian cancer cases are ‘sporadic’. This means they are not inherited. However, there are genetic mutations (changes in genes) that increase a person’s risk of developing both breast and ovarian cancer. The most well-known of these are the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.
Ovarian cancer is rare in young people, but it does happen. Ovarian cancer is also more likely to occur at a younger age if you have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation. Around 1,000 women under the age of 50 develop ovarian cancer every year, so it is important that everyone is aware of the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer. A health practitioner should never rule ovarian cancer out on the basis of age alone.
The symptoms of ovarian cancer can seem vague and are often confused with other health problems such as a bladder infection (UTI), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), back pain, or the menopause. If a person regularly experiences any of the symptoms, and they are not normal for them, they should be encouraged to speak to their GP.
We all need to act now to make sure the future is brighter for women with ovarian cancer. Anyone can get involved with raising awareness – we have more of an impact together than any of us could on our own” – Pauline, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2014.
- UTI: One of the key symptoms is needing to wee more often or more urgently. If an individual is experiencing recurrent UTIs with no explanation, or is having other ovarian cancer symptoms, they should speak to a GP.
- IBS: Symptoms of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) are very similar to ovarian cancer and include tummy pain, bloating, diarrhoea or constipation. Some people who go on to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer are misdiagnosed with IBS first. It’s important to note that IBS very rarely presents for the first time in people over the age of 50, so women over this age with these symptoms should be given appropriate tests for ovarian cancer.
- Back pain: Abdominal pain is one of the key symptoms, but it can sometimes radiate to the back of the body. If no other cause can be found, anyone experiencing persistent back pain should speak to their GP.
- Menopause: Sometimes ovarian cancer symptoms are put down to getting older or being menopausal. The body does change during the menopause, but a person’s GP is the person who can tell them whether it’s the menopause or something else.
If anyone is worried, they should keep a diary of their symptoms and take this to their GP.
An OH professional should raise the red flag when the symptoms described are:
- Frequent – they usually happen more than 12 times a month
- Persistent – they don’t go away
- New – they’re not normal for you
No one should be scared to mention ovarian cancer directly to a health practitioner if they’re worried about potential symptoms or their family history.
If a GP suspects ovarian cancer, there are two tests they can use: a CA125 blood test and an ultrasound scan – this will usually be a transvaginal ultrasound. If both of these tests indicate that this could be ovarian cancer, the individual will be referred to a specialist doctor in a hospital.
With no screening test for ovarian cancer, the route to diagnosis is key to survival. Making more people aware of the symptoms will save lives. Occupational health professionals could do this in the workplace.
This can help those experiencing symptoms of ovarian cancer identify or place their symptoms quickly and encourage them to visit their GP. We all know our own bodies and we need to be confident enough to seek advice when if there’s something wrong. Awareness arms us with knowledge right from the very first conversation with a doctor.
The workplace can also act as an additional support network outside family and personal life. It’s a space away from home to voice concerns and fears freely without the worry of its impact on loved ones. Ovarian cancer can be a scary prospect, and getting clarity is key for anyone who’s worried about it.
Campaigning, raising awareness and fundraising in the workplace achieves real change and can be helpful for those experiencing an ovarian cancer diagnosis, or who have returned to work after treatment. It’s a way to bring people together, boost morale and support those with ovarian cancer. It also helps that vital message reach even more people.
Target Ovarian Cancer has a wealth of resources, including posters, to help OH professionals raise awareness of ovarian cancer symptoms at work.
Anyone worried they’re experiencing ovarian cancer symptoms can contact the specialist nurses on Target Ovarian Cancer’s support line on 020 7923 5475 or visit our website.