I’m a GP. One of the things I love about my job is that I get to travel on life’s journey alongside my patients and their families. Their stories are frequently memorable. Sometimes they are funny. Sometimes they are heart-breaking. Usually I try not to tell people my profession too soon after meeting them, to protect my off-duty time from well-meaning enquiries from neighbours and friends about their clicky knee or that funny rash they’ve got on their ankle (or worse!). But I’m telling you, internet peeps, because I have, unusually for me, something important to say. About ovaries. Ovaries in general, and yours in particular.
I want to tell you about a patient I looked after a few years ago, who had ovarian cancer. This is not a diagnosis I will make often in my career, despite being the 6th most common cancer for women in the UK. As a woman in the UK I have a one in 50 chance of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer in my lifetime, but as a GP, I will diagnose around 1 new case at most every 5 years.
This woman came back from a family holiday with an upset tummy. She felt bloated and had some diarrhoea and pain on peeing. She assumed she’d picked up a bug while away. It was only a couple of weeks later, when she wasn’t better, that she started to think about other causes. I see these sorts of vague symptoms often. There are many possible causes, and most of the time they don’t represent a serious condition. Still, where appropriate, I add the blood marker for ovarian cancer to the blood tests I take, ‘just in case’. I expect it to be normal. This time it came back raised.
This patient was lucky. You might be wondering how on earth I can say that in the circumstances. She was lucky because her cancer was detected at an early stage. The symptoms of ovarian cancer can be vague, and easy for women to dismiss as unimportant. Easy for GPs to mistake for other more common, less serious conditions. When a woman is diagnosed at the earliest stage, her chance of surviving ovarian cancer for five years or more doubles from just 46% to more than 90%, and yet many women don’t get their diagnosis until they are in the later stages of the condition. 4,100 women lose their lives each year due to ovarian cancer – that’s 11 women every day. That is why all women should know the symptoms, so we can improve early diagnosis and overall survival. That is why I’m writing this blog.
Symptoms of ovarian cancer are frequent (ie they usually happen more than 12 times a month) and persistent. They include: pelvic or abdominal pain, increased abdominal size/persistent bloating, needing to wee more urgently or more often. Occasionally there are other symptoms such as unexplained weight loss or change in bowel habit. There are no screening tests for ovarian cancer – the cervical screening programme (smear tests) will not detect ovarian cancer. Women are at greater risk after the menopause, or if they have a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer, but it can affect younger women too.
You may have read in the news recently that the combined contraceptive pill can protect against development of ovarian cancer. A study by the University of Aberdeen showed that women who have taken the pill are less likely to develop a number of cancers, including ovarian, colorectal and endometrial cancers, and that these protective effects may last as long as 30 years after the pill is stopped. But while the pill may lower the risk of developing ovarian cancer, it won’t prevent women from developing the disease.
So, if you have recently developed symptoms like these, if they persist and you are concerned, have a look at the information available on the fantastic targetovariancancer website, get your concerns checked out, and spread the word!
A Guest Blog from Dr Sara Wood
Sara is GP near Stroud and spends her time juggling work and home life with 2 small boys. She loves family walks in the country and fun times with her #villagemumtribe to let her hair down, and is currently trying to persuade her husband they need to add chickens to their brood!