Northern Ireland women 'slow to recognise ovarian cancer'

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Women in Northern Ireland are among the least aware in the UK when it comes to recognising the symptoms of ovarian cancer, a recent survey suggests.

A national charity which supports women who have the disease is calling for better diagnostic skills by GPs.

According to the results of the public survey conducted by Target Ovarian Cancer, none of the women questioned in NI were aware of the symptoms.

More than 1,000 women were surveyed across the United Kingdom.

Last year, about 178 cases were diagnosed in Northern Ireland, with an additional 119 women losing their lives.

While 400 women died in Scotland, a slightly higher number were aware of the signs.

OVARIAN CANCER SYMPTOMS

• Bloating, or swelling in the abdomen

• Pelvic or abdominal pain (especially in the lower abdomen or side)

• Difficulty eating or early satiety (feeling full very quickly)

• Urinary urgency or frequency

• Loss of appetite or weight loss

• Swelling or pain in the abdomen

• Pain during sex

• Constipation

• Irregular periods

In the advanced stages of disease, there may be loss of appetite, nausea, weight loss, tiredness and shortness of breath. It is infrequent that an obvious symptom such as bleeding from the vagina is present.

While it is often misinterpreted as irritable bowel syndrome, the charity's Frances Reid said it is very important for GPs and all health professionals to be aware of the different type of signs that come with ovarian cancer.

"The problem is that most women aren't diagnosed until the disease has spread," she said.

"There are delays almost at every turn for women.

"Either they don't recognise the symptoms, the GPs aren't picking up the symptoms, or the GPs, when they do consider ovarian cancer, are sometimes having tests refused."

Early diagnosis is key to survival.

Women diagnosed at the earliest stage of ovarian cancer have a five-year survival rate of 92%, but the five-year survival rate in the UK is just 36%, amongst the worst in Europe.

NICE (The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) also recommend that any woman aged 50 or over who has had symptoms within the last 12 months which suggest a new diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) should have tests for ovarian cancer.

IBS rarely presents for the first time in women of this age and may be confused with ovarian cancer.

Experts say 500 lives a year could be saved through earlier diagnosis of the cancer, if the UK could match the best rates in Europe.

According to the Pathfinder Study there are three areas for concern: How long it takes women to initially visit their GP; how quickly the condition is diagnosed and what services are available to health professionals to treat women with ovarian cancer.

One in four women diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the last five years took more than three months to visit their GP after they began experiencing symptoms.

About half took more than a month.

Early ovarian cancer may not cause obvious symptoms - but as the cancer grows symptoms may include a swollen or bloated abdomen, constipation, pressure in the abdomen and fatigue.

As these symptoms are often associated with other conditions, it can be difficult for GPs to diagnose the condition.

According to the study, misdiagnosis is common, with 30% of women misdiagnosed as having irritable bowel syndrome; 15% ovarian cysts and 13% a urinary infection.

The Pathfinder study is being launched at the House of Commons later.

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