Page last updated at 23:13 GMT, Sunday, 28 June 2009 00:13 UK

Ovary cancer signs 'confusion'

Ovarian cancer scan
Ovarian tumours - as seen here in green - can be hard to diagnose

There is "widespread confusion" among doctors and women about ovarian cancer, a charity has said.

Target Ovarian Cancer surveyed 400 GPs and found 80% wrongly thought women with early stage disease had no signs.

And of 1,000 women polled, only 4% said they could "confidently identify" symptoms of the disease.

A spokesman for the Royal College of GPs said it was "extraordinarily difficult" to diagnose ovarian cancer at an early stage.

Symptoms include persistent pelvic or abdominal pain, increased abdominal size and persistent bloating and difficulty eating or feeling full quickly.

Around 6,800 women are diagnosed with the cancer each year.

Only 30% are alive five years after diagnosis, a statistic the charity says has not improved in 30 years.

It's extraordinarily difficult to diagnose this silent killer early
Professor Steve Field, Royal College of GPs

It says breast cancer survival has increased from 50% to 80% in the same period.

But it said that if women were diagnosed with ovarian cancer when it was at an early stage, 90% could survive.

Currently, three-quarters of women are diagnosed when the cancer has already spread.

On average, it takes a year from the first symptoms appearing until a woman is diagnosed.

Lack of awareness

The survey of GPs also found almost three-quarters of GPs were unaware of Department of Health guidelines published in February which outlined the symptoms doctors should watch for.

When the charity asked them to pick out potential symptoms, 51% correctly identified "increased abdominal size" as the most important symptom, but less than 2% picked out "difficulty eating" or "feeling full".

And almost two-thirds were unaware that a strong history of ovarian cancer on her father's side of the family could increase a woman's risk of the disease.

The early signs of ovarian cancer can be confused with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Women can often be sent for gastric tests and by the time it is realised this is not the cause, the cancer is often very advanced.

But the poll found 69% of GPs did not know ovarian cancer was more likely to cause frequent, sudden and persistent symptoms than IBS.

GPs are aware there are problems in identifying ovarian cancer, and 93% of those questioned acknowledged that women often experienced a delay in getting a diagnosis.

'Change overdue'

Of the 1,000 women surveyed, two-thirds thought ovarian cancer was unrelated to age when older women are actually more likely to have ovarian cancer, while 80% did not know childless women were more at risk.

The charity also spoke to 132 women with the disease. Almost two-thirds felt their doctor did not take their concerns and symptoms very seriously.

And 44% waited more than six months for a correct diagnosis.

A third said they had to visit their GP three to five times before being referred to an appropriate specialist.

Annwen Jones, chief executive of Target Ovarian Cancer, said: "Change is long overdue and ovarian cancer needs to become a priority. "

Professor Steve Field, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said: "It's extraordinarily difficult to diagnose this silent killer early.

"GPs are aware that persistent abdominal pain and increased abdominal circumference (bloating) can be symptoms.

"But the more we can do to raise awareness of ovarian cancer - and remind patients and doctors that it can creep up on people - the better."

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