Ovarian cancer symptoms: signs of disease from bloating to back pain, how to test and what are the treatments?

Ovarian cancer is often detected late, but early diagnosis can mean it is more treatable

The main warning signs of ovarian cancer are being missed as most women do not know the symptoms, a charity has warned.

Target Ovarian Cancer has said that a lack of awareness of the symptoms has meant many cases of the disease are diagnosed too late, while GPs are also too quick to dismiss the signs, meaning many cases go undetected.

Early diagnosis can mean ovarian cancer is more treatable (Photo: Adobe)

A poll of 1,000 women for the charity found that 79% of women did not know that bloating is a key symptom, 68% were unaware that abdominal pain is a sign and 97% did not know feeling full is another.

A total of 99% of women did not know that needing to pee more urgently is a symptom, while some 40% incorrectly believed ovarian cancer can be detected by screening for cervical cancer.

Evidence also suggests that women can often mistakenly be told that their symptoms are a sign of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

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Annwen Jones, chief executive of Target Ovarian Cancer, said: “These figures are incredibly disappointing.

“We know we’ve shifted the dial in the past 10 years through the dedication of thousands of Target Ovarian Cancer’s campaigners, but it is not enough.

“Knowing the symptoms is crucial for everyone. We need to make sustained and large-scale government-backed symptoms campaigns a reality.

“Progress is possible. If we do this, fewer people will be diagnosed late, fewer will need invasive treatment, and, ultimately, fewer will die needlessly from ovarian cancer.”

Who can get ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer can affect anyone with ovaries, but it is most common among those aged over 50. It can also sometimes run in families.

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Around 7,500 new cases are recorded in the UK each year and it kills around a third of women in the first year after diagnosis.

The disease is often detected in the late stages, but early diagnosis can mean it is more treatable.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of ovarian cancer do appear early and will tend to be persistent and a change from normal.

Women who experience symptoms more than 12 times per month are advised to seek advice from their GP.

Signs of the disease can include:

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  • a swollen tummy or feeling bloated
  • pain or tenderness in your tummy or pelvis
  • no appetite or feeling full quickly after eating
  • an urgent need to pee or needing to pee more often
  • Indigestion
  • constipation or diarrhoea
  • back pain
  • feeling tired all the time
  • losing weight without trying
  • bleeding from the vagina after the menopause
  • pain during sex
  • period changes, such as heavier bleeding than normal or irregular bleeding

What are the tests for ovarian cancer?

A blood test and a scan are usually done first to check for ovarian cancer, but other tests are often needed to confirm a diagnosis.

This may involve an ultrasound scan to check for any changes to your ovaries.

A scanning device may be inserted into your vagina (transvaginal scan) to do this, or you may have an external scan over your tummy area (abdominal scan).

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If the scan comes back normal but symptoms continue for a month or more, you should see a GP again.

Other tests that may be done include:

  • a CT scan
  • removing a small sample of cells or fluid from your ovaries (needle biopsy),
  • looking at your ovaries using a camera on the end of a tube through a small cut in your tummy (laparoscopy)
  • surgery to remove tissue or possibly your ovaries (laparotomy)

You should get the results of your tests within a few weeks.

How is it treated?

Treatment for ovarian cancer will depend on the size and type of cancer you have, where it is, if it has spread and your general health.

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The main treatments are surgery and chemotherapy, but other targeted medicines and hormone treatments may be used.

The clinical nurse specialist will be able to provide information on local support services for anyone affected by ovarian cancer, and there are several national cancer charities that offer support and information.

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