Ovarian cancer is the biggest gynecological killer of women in the UK, and is the fourth most common form of cancer death in women, after breast, lung and bowel cancer. Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month in March 2015, led by several UK ovarian cancer charities, aims to raise awareness of the disease amongst women and GPs to help improve detection, treatment and survival rates at a national level.

Target Ovarian Cancer explains that the symptoms of this cancer are frequent (usually occurring more than 12 times a month) and persistent, and include:

  • increased abdominal size/persistent and constant bloating
  • difficulty eating/feeling full
  • pelvic or abdominal pain
  • needing to urinate more urgently or more often

Other symptoms can include unexpected weight loss, change in bowel habits, and extreme fatigue. It is advised that if women regularly experience any of these symptoms, which are not normal for them they should see their GP.

Lack of awareness among women of the symptoms of ovarian cancer is considered a big contributing factor in the late diagnosis of the disease in the UK. Research shows that just 3% of women in the UK are confident about recognising a symptom of ovarian cancer. This is why cancer charities Target Ovarian Cancer, Ovacome, Ovarian Cancer Action and The Eve Appeal are campaigning for ovarian cancer to be included in the Be Clear on Cancer programme at a national level, which is run by the Department of Health.

The Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month campaign explains that each year in the UK there are approximately 7,000 cases of ovarian cancer, roughly 135 women every week, and 4,300 deaths. Most women are diagnosed once the cancer has already spread, making treatment more challenging. The current five year survival rate is 43%. If diagnosed at the earliest stage, up to 90 per cent of women would survive five years or more.

Despite these statistics, the average GP will see only one case of ovarian cancer every five years. This, along with the fact that symptoms can be non-specific and explained by other, less sinister conditions, are further reasons why this cancer is so often diagnosed at a late stage.

Commenting on the Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month 2015 campaign, Lucie Prothero, associate at Penningtons Manches, said: “We strongly support the belief of the charities running this campaign in the benefits of a national symptoms awareness programme to help promote earlier diagnosis of ovarian cancer.

“The Be Clear on Cancer programme aims to improve the general public’s knowledge of key cancer symptoms, with a target of saving 5,000 more lives each year from 2014. Considering ovarian cancer alone, it is estimated that if UK survival rates matched the best survival rates in Europe, 500 women’s lives would be saved every year.

“Although ovarian cancer awareness was included in the Be Clear on Cancer Programme at a regional level in the North West in early 2014, it has not yet been taken to a national level, something that the cancer charities are continuing to campaign for.

“We deal with many cases where patients or their family members feel that an opportunity has been missed for earlier diagnosis and therefore agree that raising awareness of the symptoms of ovarian cancer is a key factor in improving survival rates. This awareness needs to be extended to medical practitioner level. The non-specific nature of the symptoms does present a challenge to doctors, which means that a failure to diagnose the disease is not necessarily negligent. However, ovarian cancer is so serious that any doctor should be alert to the possibility of the diagnosis where symptoms are frequent and persistent, and should have a low threshold for referring a patient for further investigation.”