Ovarian Cancer Know the Symptoms

Ovarian Cancer Know the Symptoms

Ovarian cancer is the biggest gynaecological cancer killer there is, yet it is a danger that many women are completely unaware of.

The symptoms are frequent and persistent and perhaps not what you would expect.  They include persistent tummy or abdomen pain, a swollen or bloated tummy and difficulty eating or feeling full quickly.

It is especially important to be aware of symptoms, as speedy diagnosis is the key to surviving ovarian cancer.  If caught in the early stages 95% of women with ovarian cancer survive because their disease responds more effectively to treatment.  If diagnosed in the latest stage, however, survival rates are much lower. Currently UK survival rates for ovarian cancer are among the lowest in Europe at just 30% - in part because there is so little awareness of symptoms.

Like many women and despite being a nurse - Lindy ignored her symptoms for months before visiting her GP.  After a convoluted referral path she was finally diagnosed with the most advanced stage of ovarian cancer.

I remember lying in the bath and looking with disgust at my fat stomach!  It didnt occur to me that it might have been caused by anything other than biscuits. At work I did my best to conceal it under my nursing uniform, but I still looked pregnant. I was 54.

There was a lot going on in my personal and professional life during 2003. My brother and father both died from cancer within three months of each other. I continued working throughout, and then my sister unexpectedly left the country for a new life in Australia.

As the months went on I felt tired and emotional. Constipation was a problem but I assumed it was due to stress, and I had lower back pain which, as a nurse, was nothing new. One day I had to walk up a fairly steep incline and felt so breathless and dizzy at the top that I had to sit down. I felt bloated and was eating less but there was no weight loss.

As a nurse, looking back, these symptoms should have alerted me that something was wrong but I ignored them. At the time, we were all in shock and trying to come to terms with everything that had happened. Our way of coping was to keep busy. For me to be ill was out of the question.

Eventually, I found my work with terminally ill patients and their carers too difficult. I took unpaid leave, then sick leave and was referred to a bereavement counsellor. I was offered anti-depressants by my GP and by Occupational Health, which I refused. I didnt think it relevant to mention any of my other symptoms at that time, and nobody asked. The consultations never progressed beyond me bursting into tears.

Occupational Health was determined to get me back to work, but I was still depressed so they found me a non-clinical post. I felt pressurised and unsupported and it seemed easier just to hand in my notice. I felt my manager was relieved. Of course it was a huge error of judgement. I had no idea I was physically ill. Financially it was a disaster. I had no sick pay and no job for over two years.

During all this I began to experience right-sided abdominal pain, which became persistent and eventually kept me awake at night. Always in the same place and unlike any other pain I had experienced. Very worried and convinced that I had bowel cancer, I visited my GP on March 1st 2004.

She felt my abdomen and couldnt detect anything abnormal. Her diagnosis was IBS, but seeing the worried look on my face she agreed to refer me to a gastroenterologist. He also examined me abdominally and recorded no obvious mass.

Thankfully, with private health insurance, it was only a short wait for a colonoscopy to rule out colitis. The procedure was difficult and painful and although the results were normal, my ovary on the right side was seen to be protruding against the intestine.

A week later I had a CT scan which identified a shadow on my spleen. During the scan I realised that something was very wrong. The sonographer said nothing, but afterwards she ran to find the consultant with the results. I remember sitting alone in the car in a complete state of shock and then having to drive home.

The consultant rang me later with the bad news. I had a large irregular complex mass behind the uterus and extending to both sides of the pelvis. I was referred urgently to a gynaecologist. When I rang my GP to tell her I might have cancer, she was lost for words.

A good friend came to sit with me at home that afternoon. At a loss to know what to do or say, she brought cream cakes! I found myself in a surreal situation the first of many - and from that moment my life changed.

The next TVU scan showed a shadow on my spleen. By this time I was very uncomfortable. I went to theatre on April 13th 2004.

The gynaeoncology surgeon removed my uterus, ovaries, omentum (an apron which covers the intestines and stomach) and pelvic lymph nodes. A biopsy was taken of my spleen during surgery and a general surgeon was on hand to perform a splenectomy when the results were found to be positive.

Because the cancer had spread to another organ it was classified as Stage IV, giving a very poor prognosis, but my surgeon was always confident that he had removed everything and he remains optimistic to this day. I have found his positive attitude an extremely helpful aid to recovery.

Six weeks later I began a chemotherapy regime of taxol and carboplatin. The side effects were tolerable and the only long-term damage has been peripheral neuropathy. My toes are still slightly numb.

Essentially I feel well now, although inclined to pick up any infection and take longer to fight it off. I have occasional bowel problems and pain, which is to be expected, but more than five years on I live a full and active life and consider myself to be very, very fortunate.

Ovarian Cancer:  The Facts

According to the charity Target Ovarian Cancer, 6,800 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the UK each year.  Some of these womens’ symptoms are similar to those seen in common conditions, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and easy to ignore. What you need to know about ovarian cancer is that the symptoms are:


Frequent,  they happen on most days. 
Persistent - they don’t go away. 
New,  they are not normal for you and may have started in the last 12 months.


Research has shown that the key symptoms to be aware of are:

Persistent pelvic or abdominal pain (that’s your tummy and below).  

Increased abdominal size/persistent bloating not bloating that comes and goes.  

Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly.


Occasionally there can be other symptoms such as:
        

Urinary symptoms (needing to pass water more urgently or more often than usual). 

Changes in bowel habit. 

Extreme fatigue (feeling very tired). 

Back pain.

 
These may be experienced on their own or at the same time as the key symptoms. It is most likely these symptoms are not ovarian cancer, but may be present in some women with the disease.

If you regularly experience any of these symptoms, which are not normal for you, it is important that you see your GP. It is unlikely that your symptoms are caused by a serious problem, but it is important to be checked out.

For further information, resources and help, visit www.targetovarian.org.uk, email info@targetovarian.org.uk or call Target Ovarian on 020 7923 5470.

Ovarian cancer living proof - Lisa Beardow
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