Health has been front and centre of our minds for the past year, as we've been in and out of lockdown to protect us from coronavirus. But despite this, new research from charity Target Ovarian Cancer has revealed women are risking their lives by failing to take urgent cancer symptoms seriously.
There's one ovarian cancer symptom in particular that's causing concern because of how frequently it's being dismissed as 'normal': persistent bloating. New research from Target Ovarian Cancer reveals that less than 2 in 10 women (17%) would book an urgent GP appointment (within a week) if they experienced regular bloating. That's in contrast with other, more 'well known' cancer symptoms, such as an unexplained lump, or a mole that has changed shape, where more than 50% of women would get them urgently checked out.
Bloating is something many of us experience, and we tend to treat it as an inconvenient side effect of eating too much. But it can actually be a key symptom of the disease. Of course, the majority of bloating cases won't turn out to be a symptom of cancer - but on the off chance it were, any delay in diagnosis is concerning.
Around 7,400 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer every year, and even before coronavirus, two thirds of women (66%) were found to have been diagnosed late, which increases the chance of the cancer having spread, and can make it harder to treat. When you consider this, it makes it even more imperative to seek medical advice about newly occurring symptoms - even if they are fairly common, like bloating.
Broader statistics show that less people have been seeking medical advice over potential cancer symptoms in general throughout the pandemic. In a paper written by oncologist Professor Karol Sikora last year, he estimated that in any usual April, we would see approximately 30,000 people diagnosed with cancer. But due to NHS resources being stretched more thinly than ever before with the virus taking over - and with COVID-19 health concerns taking priority - the expert wrote: "I will be surprised if we make it to 5000 diagnoses in April 2020."
Suggesting Professor Sikora's predictions were worryingly accurate, a BBC Spotlight report published in June 2020 revealed that there were 7,500 fewer "red flag" cancer diagnoses and referrals during April and May 2020, than there were in the same period in 2019. Overall, hospital referrals by GPs for all conditions were found to have fallen by 48,278 during the first peak of the pandemic. Elsewhere, research suggests that in England, urgent referrals for suspected cancer are down 60% from pre-pandemic levels, illustrating what a drastic impact the coronavirus crisis may have had on cancer care.
"Cancer is not going away just because of COVID-19," says Dr Alison Wint, GP and Clinical Lead for Cancer. "In fact, it’s as important as ever to come forward with urgent cancer symptoms such as persistent bloating, feeling full quickly or loss of appetite, tummy pain, needing to wee more often or more urgently, change in bowel habits or weight loss. Take it seriously and talk to your GP."
According research carried out by Target Ovarian Cancer in 2018, women are more likely to try eating probiotic yoghurts or amending their diets in a bid to stop rather than heading to their GP. "A probiotic yoghurt should not be preventing a woman from visiting the GP promptly if something is worrying her," the charity's chief executive Annwen Jones said at the time.
"Women should not be risking their lives because of the enduring awareness gap around the symptoms of ovarian cancer. If women know ovarian cancer symptoms such as persistent bloating and are able to link them to ovarian cancer early on, lives will be saved."
Talking to Cosmopolitan UK, 33-year-old Fiona recalled persistent bloating as one of the symptoms she experienced ahead of her ovarian cancer diagnosis. But initially, she dismissed it as anything of concern. "When I first got the IBS symptoms, I wasn’t too concerned. I went to the doctor, cut down on gluten, cut out wheat, came off dairy and tried lots of different options to try to tackle it," she said.
It was only months later, when nothing she tried made any difference and her symptoms worsened, that Fiona sought advice from a doctor and received a diagnosis of ovarian cancer.
Along with regular bloating, there are a number of other ovarian cancer symptoms that might equally be presumed as minor and nothing to worry about, but it's important to be aware of them. Three key ones are:
Needing to urinate more frequently
Feeling full quickly and/or loss of appetite
Pelvic or abdominal pain (your tummy and below)
If you're suffering from any of the above, put your mind at ease and visit your GP. It might well be nothing, but there's always a small chance it could be something more serious, in which case you'll be so much better off having addressed it early.
Find out more about the symptoms of ovarian cancer here.
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