ABDOMINAL bloating for more than three weeks is a symptom of ovarian cancer. Yet a recent poll showed that only a third of women were aware of this, with more participants likely to change their diet rather than seek medical advice, assuming their symptoms were due to Irritable Bowel Syndrome. With 7,500 new cases in the UK every year, Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month aims to inform women of what to look out for and when to consult a doctor.

The ovaries, each roughly the size of a walnut, sit in the lower abdomen and are connected to the uterus, also known as the womb, by the fallopian tubes. They are responsible for storing and producing a woman’s eggs.

As highlighted, symptoms of ovarian cancer can be vague, with many complaints thankfully due to less sinister causes. However, any unexplained abdominal pain or swelling should not be ignored. Feeling full earlier than usual after a meal, a change in your bladder or bowel habit and pain on intercourse may also be signs. Vaginal bleeding after the menopause should prompt an urgent appointment with your routine doctor. While ovarian cancer typically affects females over 50 whose periods have stopped, it does occur before this age, so women of all ages should be vigilant to changes in their body that don’t feel right.

As well as increasing age, a family history of ovarian or breast cancer may put you at greater risk of the disease, particularly if you carry the BRCA1 or 2 genes. However, this applies to less than a fifth of cases. Suffering with endometriosis, where tissue lining the womb is found in other parts of the abdomen, has also been shown to play a role. Smoking and obesity raise your chances of this cancer as well as others.

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above, the first thing to do is to see your routine GP as soon as possible. A physical assessment may involve a vaginal examination. A blood marker, known as CA 125, is raised in ovarian cancer. However, it is also high in other conditions including fibroids, endometriosis and even pregnancy, and hence has not yet been approved as a screening tool in women without any symptoms. If your doctor feels you may have ovarian cancer, you will be referred urgently to see a gynaecologist for scans and assessment.

The outlook for ovarian cancer, if caught early, is favourable, with half of those diagnosed still alive five years later and over a third at ten years. Though these figures may seem low, greater awareness of the disease will hopefully encourage more women to come forward sooner rather than later. Though symptoms may seem bowel related, I would caution that it is very rare for any woman to newly develop Irritable Bowel Syndrome over the age of 50 and it is probably this particular group who should seek the advice of their GP at the earliest stage.