THE deadliest of all the gynaecological cancers, deaths from ovarian cancer are nearly four times more common than those from cervical cancer.
Yet it is a disease that many women are still alarmingly unaware of.
A quarter of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer take more than three months to visit their GP after they first experience symptoms.
And if a GP does not recognise the symptoms, diagnosis can be even further delayed.
According to ovarian cancer charity Target Ovarian Cancer, almost a third of women wait six months or more to get a correct diagnosis after first visiting their GP.
March is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month and charities including Ovacome and Target Ovarian Cancer are working to make women more aware of the signs of ovarian cancer.
They also want women to raise any concerns they might have, early, before the disease can take hold and even spread.
If diagnosed at the earliest stage, up to 90 per cent of women would survive five years or more, compared to the current 36 per cent of UK women.
For the family of Debbie Garratt (nee Kuca), who died from ovarian cancer aged just 38, no amount of campaigning can bring her back. But they are hoping that the awareness month will prevent more families enduring the pain they have gone through.
Debbie was over the moon following the birth of her third child Riley in August 2003 but the 36-year-old from Blewbury, near Didcot, had been suffering from unexplained gynaecological and intestinal pain for several years and just a few months after the birth fell ill with crippling stomach pains.
Debbie’s mother Jennie Kuca, from East Hagbourne, said: “Debbie had been going to the doctors in pain for a long time but had been continuously fobbed off and at one point was even told it was ‘in her mind’.
“When it was confirmed that she had had advanced stage three cancer, she had a new baby and her other children Kristina (Kriss) and Jonathan were just 14 and nine.
“She had to wean Riley off her breast milk just so she could start her cancer treatment.”
Debbie had a hysterectomy followed by chemotherapy which seemed for a time to be working.
But further tests revealed the cancer had spread to her bowel and she was told there was nothing more doctors could do.
In April 2005, the week she was told her cancer had returned, she appeared in the Oxford Mail, urging concerned women to get checked out.
She married Mark Garratt three days before passing away
Her plans to marry Riley’s father Mark Garratt, in America, were sadly cancelled and Debbie, a chef and part-time jewellery-maker, made memory boxes for the children she knew she would be forced to leave.
Jennie Kuca said: “Debbie and Mark did get their wish to marry, but in Sobell Hospice three days before she died.
“Incredibly Debbie held a Macmillan Cancer charity coffee morning just the day before she went into the hospice for the last time.
“She was passionate about raising awareness of cancer and helping others and I’m proud to say her children have gone on to become three lovely people who are a credit to her legacy.”
She continued: “We have no idea why Debbie developed ovarian cancer.
“Myself and my sister have had genetic testing, but we are clear. But the key to beating it is raising awareness of its symptoms which are still sadly being missed or mistaken for other less serious things.”
'You never get over losing your mum'
Kriss Spindler with her children Lily and James and grandmother Jennie Kuca. Pictured in a photo behind is Kriss’s mum Debbie
DEBBIE’S daughter Kriss Spindler, from Didcot, was just 16 when her mum died.
Now 24, married and herself a mother-of-two, she has gone on to fundraise for ovarian cancer charities in her mother’s honour.
She said: “I remember when mum told me she had ovarian cancer I actually thought, that’s not well known, it must be one of the ‘best’ ones to get and survive, but it is actually one of the worst.”
She added: “I don’t think you ever really get over losing your mum.
“I went to live with my nan and busied myself in school and ballet. It was when I had my own children, (Lily, five, and James, three) that it really hit me that I did not have her there. I look around and see young mums with their mums and I think about her a lot.
“I also worry I will get ovarian cancer. I have not had any tests yet and strangely enough I have been told I would not be offered one anyway because only one relative has died from it – they usually require two to have died from it, which seems wrong.”
She added: “I had a charity table-top sale the year after my mum died, just as she always did in Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month.
“And now my children are getting older I want to do more fundraising and perhaps even campaign for more research and testing.
“More has to be done to stop this terrible cancer killing women.”
SURGEONS REMOVED GIAN CYST FROM WOMAN'S OVARY
GILLIAN Pinnock counts herself lucky as one of the women to survive ovarian cancer.
The 38-year-old quantity surveyor, also believes her doctor overlooked her ovarian cancer during as many as 10 visits; dismissing the blood in her urine, her abdominal pain and bloating as a urinary tract infection, and trying to treat them with antibiotics.
“Looking back it was clear as daylight what was wrong with me. I had the classic ovarian cancer symptoms. In the end the bloating got so bad that my stomach was protruding and I looked like I was pregnant.
“But I feel I should have been more insistent when I visited my GP. We all have to take responsibility for ourselves and our health and I believe we should all voice our concerns to our doctors.”
In June 2004, when Mrs Pinnock moved to a new address near Oxford, her new GP referred her to hospital where a cyst the size of a 23-week old foetus was removed from one of her ovaries and tests revealed she had stage one ovarian cancer.
She began a harrowing battle to survive, undergoing surgery, only for her cancer to reappear a year later, followed by four rounds of chemotherapy so intense that it left her bedbound for days at a time.
Eventually she had a hysterectomy in January 2008. And while she has now been clear of cancer for six years, menopause at the age of 32 has left her with weakened bones and unable to have children – but also compelled to make more women aware of the signs of ovarian cancer and to act upon them.
She said: “My cancer was not genetic and I was also fortunate in that I had a very rare and slow-growing tumour but there were many hard decisions to take.
“I was told it was no longer about preserving my fertility, but about saving my life.
“It has taken six years of counselling for me to come through it with a positive outlook at the end.
“I got married in 2009 and would have loved to have been able to start a family. That is not an option for us now.
“But now I look at my cancer as bad luck, which turned to good luck when I survived.
“Early detetection is key and I would also say that charities like Ovacome can be invaluable when you learn you have cancer. I just wanted to find someone who was going through something like me and they helped. Ovacome also has a great support system in place for people who need it.”
‘Don’t be afraid to see your GP’
DR Sean Kehoe, from Oxford, is ovarian cancer charity Ovacome’s medical adviser, and the Lawson Tait Professor of Gynaecological Cancer at the University of Birmingham.
He recently led a major study to determine the impact of timing of surgery and chemotherapy in advanced ovarian cancer patients.
The results have not yet been published but have found patients who have been better able to manage their symptoms and suffer fewer side-effects when surgery is performed part-way through their chemotherapy.
Dr Keo, right, said: “Ovarian cancer is relatively rare compared to other cancers like breast cancer and much less high profile, which means less people talk about it.
“But unfortunately a lot of women with ovarian cancer die.
“When you look at its symptoms none are blatantly obvious and many on their own can be symptoms of different conditions.
“A standard GP practice may only see four ovarian cancer patients in its lifetime.
“Nevertheless, we do need to raise awareness amongst the public and also GPs and women with concerns should always go and see their doctor – a doctor would prefer to see you than to know you were sitting at home worrying.”
ALL ABOUT OVARIAN CANCER
- OVARIAN cancer is the fifth most common cancer among women in the UK. Each year, there are around 6,800 new cases.
- Cervical screening tests – sometimes known as smear tests – will not help to detect ovarian cancer s Some of the symptoms of ovarian cancer are similar to those seen in more common conditions, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) so GPs may find it hard to diagnose.
- Most cases of ovarian cancer are diagnosed in women who have gone through ‘the change of life’ or menopause.
- This means that most cases are in women over the age of 50, but younger women can also get ovarian cancer
- The sooner ovarian cancer is diagnosed, the easier it is to treat. Survival rates can be over 90 per cent for women diagnosed at the earliest stage of ovarian cancer.
- Abdominal pain (that’s your tummy and below)
- Increased abdominal size/persistent bloating – not bloating that comes and goes
- Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
- Urinary symptoms (needing to wee more urgently or often than usual)
- Changes in bowel habit, extreme fatigue or unexplained weight loss.
- If you regularly experience any of these symptoms, which are not normal for you, it is important that you see your GP.
- It is unlikely that your symptoms are caused by a serious problem, but it is important to be checked out.
- There are ovarian cancer awareness events taking place around the county throughout March and people are also being encouraged to hold their own events, including vintage tea parties to raise money for research and support for sufferers.
For more details visit: targetovariancancer.org.uk and ovacome.org.uk Ovacome also has a nurse-led support line on 0845 371 0554 if women are concerned about ovarian cancer.