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Thursday, 15 November, 2001, 00:10 GMT
Ovarian cancer rates soar
Egg
Risk of contracting ovarian cancer decrease with pregnancy
The number of cases ovarian cancer in England and Wales has soared by nearly 20% over the last 20 years.

In Scotland, the rate has risen by nearly a quarter.

Experts from the British Gynaecological Cancer Society (BGCS) will hear on Thursday that fewer than one in three UK women with the disease will survive for five years - one of the lowest survival rates in Europe.

Percentage five-year survival rates
Sweden 45
Austria 45
Spain 41
France 37
Germany 33
UK 29
European average 33
The conference will also be told of the launch of a major international trial to examine the benefits of five different combinations of chemotherapy.

Researchers will also look at the molecular genetics of ovarian cancer to try and identify the genes that control response to treatment and its side-effects.

Professor Ian Jacobs, BGCS president and a consultant gynaecological oncologist at St Bartholomew's Hospital, London, said: "More than 14,000 British women are diagnosed with gynaecological cancers each year.

"Almost half of these are ovarian cancers and sadly, because this cancer is often discovered late, the outlook for many ovarian cancer patients is poor."

Professor Jacobs said understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of ovarian cancer had expanded greatly over the last few years.

This would hopefully led to new approaches to prevention, screening and treatment.

Progress

He said progress that had already been made in treating cervical cancer now had to be mirrored in the treatment of ovarian cancer patients.

"We've already seen how screening for cervical cancer has made a tremendous impact on survival.

"Thanks to this, and to improvements in surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy, UK mortality from cervical cancer has halved over the last twenty years.

"Now we want to see this improvement matched in ovarian cancer."

Ovarian cancer facts
The lifetime risk for a woman in England or Wales developing ovarian cancer is 1 in 48
Symptoms may include abdominal swelling, pain, nausea, bloating and weight loss
UK incidence for 1997 was 6,860 cases
90% of cases and 95% of deaths occur in women over the age of 45
In 1999 in the UK there were 4,480 deaths from ovarian cancer
The reason for the rise in incidence is unclear, but researchers believe that lifestyle factors and fertility are important.

The disease is commoner among white women, and in those from more affluent social groups.

Children

A woman's risk of the disease is reduced if she has had children, and decreases with each pregnancy.

And using the combined oral contraceptive pill also reduces risk, by approximately 50% in women who ever use it and by up to 80% in women who use it long-term.

Professor Mike Richards, the National Cancer Director, said: "The government has identified cancer as a top priority within health.

"The NHS Cancer Plan, published a year ago, recognised that the UK lagged behind many European countries in its cancer survival rates, including those for ovarian cancer.

"The Cancer Plan sets out a comprehensive strategy to tackle cancers and specific guidance has been published related to gynaecological cancers.

"Good progress is being made, but it will take time before this is reflected in five year survival rates."

Ovarian cancer is both the fourth most common and the fourth biggest killer cancer in British women.

Professor Mike Richards
Professor Mike Richards said progress was being made
If caught early, when the disease is still confined to the ovaries, surgical treatment alone can provide a cure.

But early diagnosis is difficult because symptoms are often vague and may be delayed until the disease is already widespread.

Researchers have devised a potential detection method for ovarian cancer, combining a blood test and high-tech ultrasound scanning.

Doctors are also awaiting the results of a large-scale trial to see if this new method is reliable and effective in spotting tumours at an early stage.

Trials

Kate Law, the Cancer Research Campaign's Director of Clinical Trials, said: "This trial is the largest one of its kind in the UK and will eventually involve 200,000 British women.

"If the new test proves to be effective, it could take us closer to establishing an ovarian cancer screening programme.

"Early detection is key to the successful treatment of gynaecological cancers. The cervical screening service has saved thousands of women's lives. It would be wonderful if, in the future, an ovarian cancer screening programme could do the same."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Karen Allen
"Survival rates are depressingly low"
Dr Lesley Walker, Cancer Research Campaign
"The situation has improved"
See also:

08 May 01 | Health
Cancer op 'may not cure worries'
17 Mar 00 | C-D
Ovarian cancer
11 May 01 | Health
Surgery cuts ovarian cancer risk
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