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Understanding the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer

08 May 2020

Today is World Ovarian Cancer Awareness Day, and with over 7,000 cases of ovarian cancer diagnosed in the UK every year, Dr Sally Harris, a GP at The Wilmslow Hospital, shares the four key warning signs that women shouldn’t ignore.

Although ovarian cancer is most common in post-menopausal women (usually over the age of 50), it can also affect younger women, as well as women with a family history, who may be at an increased genetic risk. Early symptoms can be subtle, so it is important to be aware of key warning signs and discuss any concerns with your GP as soon as possible.

Persistent bloating - women often experience bloating, so as a symptom it can be one that is easily ignored. However, persistent bloating that does not come and go should always be discussed with your GP. Bloating is often put down to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), however this doesn’t usually present in women in their late 40’s or 50’s, so it is important to rule out ovarian cancer before a diagnosis of IBS can be confirmed. 

Persistent pelvic and abdominal pain - any pain should always be discussed with your GP. Whilst not always a sign of cancer, it is important address any underlying causes. Persistent pelvic and abdominal pain, which can also present as lower back pain, can be a key warning sign of ovarian cancer and it’s important to flag this.

Feeling full quickly - unexplained changes to appetite, such as feeling full quickly or not being able to finish a meal, can be an indication of an underlying health condition. It is important that you contact your GP if you experience these symptoms which can also be accompanied by unexplained weight loss – as this is one of the early warning signs of ovarian cancer. I often wonder if this symptom presents late, because as women, comments about weight loss are almost always perceived as a compliment. But it really is vital to discuss any unexplained weight loss or changes to your appetite with your GP as soon as possible.

Unexplained changes in bowel habit and an increased need to urinate - any changes in bowel habits should be discussed with your GP - this includes unexplained diarrhoea (loose stools) or constipation (difficulty in passing stools). The need to urinate more often or an increased urgency to urinate (feeling like you can’t hold on) should also be raised. Some people may feel uncomfortable discussing these symptoms, but as GPs it is something we hear about often and can be key to helping establish a diagnosis of underlying causes.

Any post-menopausal bleeding could be another indication of an underlying condition, including ovarian cancer. So, if you do experience this it is vital to raise it with your GP.

We know people are worried about seeking medical advice, either because they are worried about visiting a healthcare setting or do not want to be a burden on the healthcare system at this time, but I can’t stress enough how important it is not to ignore any symptoms. Delaying contacting your GP or healthcare provider can delay diagnosis, and we know with cancer just how important an early diagnosis is to onward treatment and long-term outcomes.

Most GPs are able to offer initial telephone or video appointments at this time, and we can even prescribe some medications electronically so you may not need to come in. If after your initial virtual consultation, your GP advises you need a face-to-face appointment or further tests, you can be reassured that we are following the latest guidelines and taking all the necessary precautions to keep you and our team as safe as possible.

If you are experiencing any new or worrying symptoms, please do not delay in seeking medical advice. As GPs we are here to listen, support and help you get any onward care you may need.

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